Treating cancer can be tricky. Not only is every cancer different, but most common therapies, such as radiation and chemotherapy, also damage healthy cells, which results in the side effects that we associate with cancer treatment. Scientists are now studying the changes in cancer cells, particularly in the proteins that they express, in hopes of finding better ways of targeting cancer specifically.
Patrick Gunning, a medicinal chemist and professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, is looking for a cancer protein that he can shut down to treat brain cancer and multiple myeloma. In particular, a brain cancer diagnosis comes with a life expectancy of 6-12 months in the best case scenario, making it both rare and lethal. Gunning has singled out a protein called STAT3 as a master regulator that is frequently seen in these cancers and drives their growth. By designing molecules in the lab that knock out STAT3, his team has shown selective cancer cell death in promising pre-clinical trials – meaning that these new drugs are killing cancer cells, and have no measurable effect on normal cells. The next step is to confirm their anti-cancer activity in clinical trials.
Hyperactivation of STAT3 has also been identified in inflammatory diseases, such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, so the molecules developed for cancer treatment may also be used to treat an even wider range of diseases more effectively.