Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Breakthrough in Cancer Treatment has two links to Chennai

The breakthrough promises to reduce complexity of cancer treatment (Image:
Chennai: Two alumni of educational institutions from the city are at the forefront of a breakthrough in cancer treatment, which they claim can remove the shroud of inevitable fatality associated with the disease.

The breakthrough pertains to the discovery and synthesis of a protein that can be lethal to tumour cells and Cancer Stem Cells (CSCs) – the root causes for the disease and its re-generation.

Born in a hamlet in Namakkal, Salem district – the same as that of the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasan Ramanujam – and educated at the Madras Christian College and JIPMER, Puducherry, Prof Arunasalam Dharmarajan claims to have discovered the protein, codenamed SC-201. The professor, who is presently with the School of Biomedical Sciences at Curtin University, Perth, Australia, says that the protein
has the potential to lead to the development of a drug that could kill the CSCs. These cells are the tumour initiating cells typically resistant to standard chemotherapeutic approaches. “Clinical use of such a drug could lead to eradication of the cause of tumour re-growth,” he said.
Another Namakkal prodigy: Prof Arunasalam Dharmarajan
This means that a traditional problem associated with cancer treatment – that of recurring tumours, which are untouched by repeated bouts of chemotherapy and drugs – could be resolved, albeit in the distant future. Prof Dharmarajan states that the foundation has been laid for a drug discovery programme, which would focus on the design, screening and characterisation of the peptide fragments of SC-201 – fragments that are used to identify and quantify the source protein. “The goal is to discover peptides with enhanced potency that might be developed as a clinical candidate drug,” he elucidated.

According to the academician, who has been in this line of research for more than a decade, his work differs from conventional cancer therapies due to the fact that it targets the CSCs. “The majority of cancer therapies in clinical practice target only the rapidly dividing cancer cells through a host of mechanisms which generally do not affect them.” This could lead to re-generation and spreading of the tumour after initial treatment, leading to its uncontrolled growth and eventual death of patient.

“Our findings show that this protein can inhibit the production of tumour cells in breast, head and neck, ovary, prostate and mesothelioma, not only by itself, but also with existing chemo-therapeutic agents. The extent of reduction has been almost 80 per cent,” says the professor.
Dr Sudha Warrier

The research is being carried out in collaboration with Dr Sudha Warrier, who is a PhD holder from the University of Madras and currently an associate professor with the Manipal Institute of Regenerative Medicine, Bangalore. Dr Sudha, who has been primarily involved in areas of research relating to stem cells, says that she got acquainted with Prof Dharmarajan around two years ago, for work relating to an Indo-Australian research grant. With the research interests of the two scientists striking a chord, they started collaborating on the subject. “Although we are focusing on brain cancer, we are sure that our studies can be extended to other forms of cancer as well.”

Like bacteria, stem cells too can be classified into the good and bad, with their usage in medical procedures such as cell replacement therapy and treatment relating to diabetes and cardiac ailments being rather extensive.

She believes that targeting the stem cells can eliminate the recurrence of cancer by preventing the proliferation of tumours. Their work, she says, has been quoted and published in international journals, including Oncology Research and BMC Cell Biology.

The road ahead? Testing and research on developing the protein into a clinical drug is in its initial stages, involving animal testing. “Reaching the phase of human testing may take at least 10 years,” she said.

In a corollary, Prof Dharmarajan believes that current research will expand on the knowledge of this protein and examine its suitability as a therapeutic agent targeting CSCs and rapidly growing vessels in a wide range of aggressive tumours.