Scientists discover new drugs with potential to treat cancer

A new class of chemical compounds have the potential to revolutionize cancer treatment

Katie Willis - 19 November 2019

Researchers at the University of Alberta have discovered a new class of drugs with the potential to treat cancer patients.

"For patients with resistant cancer, this drug could rescue them by rendering their cancer once again treatable," said Fred West, professor in the Department of Chemistry and co-director of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta (CRINA). "For patients who have not developed resistance, it could permit the use of lower, safer doses of chemotherapy, which would greatly reduce the serious side effects that accompany many types of chemotherapy treatment."

The drug works by preventing cancer cells from repairing their own DNA, which is damaged through traditional treatments such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Specifically, the newly discovered compounds inhibit the interaction of a protein pair called ERCC1-XPF that is responsible for repairing DNA within cancer cells.

Initially, the research team is focusing on colorectal cancer and lung cancer, two of the most widespread forms. But eventually, they hope to apply the drug to many different forms.

"First, we need to test the compound on model organisms to validate that the effects we have observed so far in cells still happen in a living organism, which is a much more complex situation," said West. "Then, we'll work on developing a potent oral drug and aim to partner with a major pharmaceutical company to conduct first-in-human clinical trials."

The research team has already filed a provisional patent application and is working toward preclinical studies as soon as next year. The research team includes Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta (CRINA) members Jack Tuszynski and Michael Weinfeld in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, and Khaled Barakat in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Lab work was led by Ahmed Elmenoufy, first author and PhD student studying under the supervision of West.

The project is the culmination of a multi-year research project, initially funded by a $2.9 million grant from the Alberta Cancer Foundation. The paper, "Targeting DNA Repair in Tumor Cells via Inhibition of ERCC1-XPF" was published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry (doi: 10.1021/acs.jmedchem.9b00326).