In Brief
  • The number of people living beyond a cancer diagnosis is expected to rise to almost 19 million by 2024.
  • This new compound was able to block a protein that is essential for the sustained growth of up to a quarter of all cancers.

Cells That Avoid Death

A new compound, discovered by international pharmaceutical companies Servier and Vernalis (R&D), has the potential to prevent several kinds of cancers that afflict humans.

The study, published in Nature, notes that cancers manifest in the abnormal and harmful growth of cells in the body. Cancer cells are particularly resilient because they can avoid apoptosis—a cell mechanism that regulates the rate of cell division, in which cell masses that are no longer needed commit suicide. Cancer cells avoid this by possessing a protein called myeloid cell leukemia 1 (MCL1).

“MCL1 is important for many cancers because it is a pro-survival protein that allows the cancerous cells to evade the process of programmed cell death that normally removes cancer cells from the body,” said Guillaume Lessene of Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, one of the study’s partner industries.

The researchers propose to resolve this using a compound called S63845, a molecule synthesized by Servier. “Extensive studies performed in a variety of cancer models have shown that S63845 potently targets cancer cells dependent on MCL1 for their survival,” said Lessene. Essentially, use this to block the protein, and cancer can’t grow.

Cancer-Free Tomorrows

Lessene’s research group, together with hematologists from The Alfred Hospital and Servier scientists, demonstrated that the compound was effective against several cancer types, including acute myeloid leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma, as well as solid cancers such as melanoma and cancers of the lung and breast. They also report that S63845 can be administered to patients in doses that can be tolerated by normal cells.

Lessene believes that the study drives forward previous research on how cancers survive, and how to treat them. S63845 is a member of a new class of of anti-cancer drugs called BH3 mimetics. “BH3 mimetics inhibit a group of proteins known as the ‘pro-survival BCL-2 proteins’. MCL1 is a member of this protein family,” he said.

The study is in its early stages and probably won’t be tested on people soon, but it’s another step towards securing a better future safe from cancer.