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New way to suppress the growth of gastrointestinal tumours

April 13, 2017

Scientists at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute in Melbourne have revealed a novel way to suppress the growth of gastrointestinal tumours.

Gastrointestinal cancers – those that affect the stomach and bowel – are among the most common causes of cancer death, affecting more than 15,000 Australians each year.

The preclinical studies showed that inhibiting a protein called HCK (hematopoietic cell kinase) can suppress the growth of established gastrointestinal tumours and reduce the emergence of new cancers.

Professor Matthias Ernst, who led the work with Dr Ashleigh Poh and Dr Robert O’Donoghue, said HCK had a powerful role in cancer development because of the effect it has on macrophages, a critical part of the immune system.

“We have known for a long time that in non-cancer situations macrophages have two major roles: these cells can behave like ‘garbage collectors’ when they remove unwanted debris or damaged cells, or they can behave like ‘nurses’ to help at sites of injury and wounding,“ said Professor Ernst.

“What we’ve now discovered is the more HCK activity a macrophage has, the more it nurtures cancer cell growth and survival. The macrophage becomes a wound healer rather than a garbage collector that cleans up the cancer cells.”

Professor Ernst’s team found that inhibiting HCK by using a small drug-like molecule reduced the growth of bowel and gastric cancers.

Professor Ernst said that drugs that modify the behaviour of macrophages were already starting to show promise as a treatment for solid tumours.

“Our discovery could potentially offer a new and complementary approach to chemotherapy and immunotherapy as options for treating gastrointestinal cancers,” he said.

Dr Niall Tebbutt, Head of Medical Oncology at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre, said the research presented important insight into future treatment approaches for gastrointestinal cancers.

“This research may help us to understand why bowel cancer is so resistant to immunotherapy but, more importantly, it provides a new approach to possibly overcome this resistance through inhibition of HCK. Future clinical trials of this approach in patients with advanced bowel cancer are worth pursuing.”

The research was recently published in the international journal Cancer Cell.

This news was first published on Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre’s website.

The research was supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, Ludwig Cancer Research, La Trobe University and the Victorian State Government Operational Infrastructure Scheme.

The Australian Cancer Research Foundation has awarded two research grants, in total AUD $3 million, to Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, which supports researchers located at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute.

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