Australian researchers set to test cancer drug on mesothelioma

Date: Mar 21, 2017

Researchers in Melbourne are hopeful that a new cancer drug could help treat mesothelioma, an asbestos-related disease with a notoriously poor prognosis.

The Olivia Newton John Cancer Research Institute has found a drug that looks promising in laboratory tests, and the organisation’s scientists are keen to begin human trials.

According to the institute, people with mesothelioma have just a 10 per cent survival rate in the first five years after diagnosis. Individuals may not show any symptoms for decades following their initial exposure to asbestos, with the majority of diagnoses occurring when people are aged between 70 and 79, according to government figures.

The new medication under trial is an antibody drug conjugate, which binds to cancer cells and releases chemotherapy packets. The drug is allegedly able to kill only cancerous tissue, unlike traditional treatments that attack both good and bad cells.

Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the institute, Associate Professor Tom John said: “In mice models, the tumours shrank and if we stopped the treatment they grew back.”

Trialling the drug

Human trials are scheduled to begin later this year, but the process could be much shorter than with other medications, as it has already been tested on brain cancer patients.

The discovery that the drug would also be applicable for people with mesothelioma was somewhat fortuitous, as Professor John had been working on a separate project at the time.

He was cataloguing mesothelioma tissue samples, growing human cancers in mice and creating a database in the adjacent laboratory to researchers who were conducting the brain cancer experiments.

Professor John wondered whether mesothelioma tumours expressed the same molecule that his colleagues were exploring next door and decided to share resources.

“Lo and behold, they did,” he explained. “It’s a highly-expressed target.”

Funding for mesothelioma

Sadly, mesothelioma patients often die within 12 months of diagnosis. Compensation is available to families whose loved ones were exposed to asbestos in the workplace and subsequently developed mesothelioma, but Professor John said new treatments for the deadly disease are urgently required.

The Cancer Council of Victoria recently announced $700,000 of grants for mesothelioma research, with some of the money going to Professor John’s team. The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre will receive the remainder of the funding.

The late Lyall Watts, a sufferer of mesothelioma, donated the money that facilitated the grants. Mr Watts died in November 2014, and was an active member of the charity Asbestoswise.

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