Combination of drugs boosts cancer-fighting power of chemotherapy

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published January 5, 2016

Key Takeaways

Some cancer targets in the body can withstand chemotherapy, allowing tumors to grow. But combining current chemotherapy agents with novel drugs that block such targets could significantly improve cancer treatment, according to research published in Cancer Cell.

"This important research shows us there’s potential to boost the cancer-fighting power of chemotherapy—and do more with less,” said study leader Stephen Taylor, BSc, PhD, professor of Cell Biology and Cancer Research UK Senior Fellow at the University of Manchester in the UK.

In this study, the University of Manchester researchers noted that taxanes—first-line chemotherapeutic agents used to treat breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers—don’t always work. The mechanisms involved in the process remain unclear.

To clarify this process, the researchers performed a detailed, genome-wide screening in a range of cancers—including colon, lung, breast, cervical, and ovarian cancers—to try and find out why some can outlive taxane-based chemotherapy.

The team identified Bcl-xL, a protein that helps cancer cells survive because it inhibits chemotherapy-induced apoptosis of the cells.

Accordingly, when the researchers combined taxanes with Bcl-xL blockers, they found that the combination of treatments killed far more cancer cells in the lab than taxanes alone.

"This new combination could ‘soften up’ cancer cells, making it easier for chemotherapy to deliver the final blow and destroy the tumor,” Dr. Taylor said. “And the good news is that drugs targeting Bcl-xL are already out there and being tested in clinical trials.”

For example, the Bcl-xL inhibitor navitoclax is being investigated in combination with taxane chemotherapy in ovarian cancer cell lines.

Such combinations “could improve treatment for patients receiving taxanes and lower their chemotherapy dose, which would also help to reduce side effects,” Dr. Taylor said.

Emma Smith, PhD, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s still early days for this research but, if the results are confirmed in clinical trials, it has the potential to improve treatment for thousands of cancer patients.”

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