UCL News


A step closer to personalised cancer treatments

31 May 2006

Research published this week in 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' (PNAS) in the USA, shows that a new method for investigating tumours could form the basis for a test to help doctors to determine which drugs will be most appropriate for cancer in an individual patient.

Dr Pedro Cutillas and Professor Bart Vanhaesebroeck, UCL Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, in a collaboration with Professor Asim Khwaja, UCL Haematology, used mass spectrometry to identify signalling pathways that are implicated in the onset and progression of cancer. Their use of mass spectrometry may provide a single clinical test to help oncologists to select the most appropriate therapy for patients.

Signalling pathways are controlled by genes which regulate normal cell growth, but which can mutate and cause uncontrolled cell growth (cancer). Some of the genes that can cause cancer produce enzymes called kinases, and different cancer-causing cells produce different kinases. Mass spectrometry can be used to measure the degree to which different kinases have been activated, which gives an indication of the specific pathway that is causing the cancer.

Dr Cutillas and Professor Vanhaesebroeck conducted their experiments on melanoma tumours and leukaemia cells, including a subpopulation of leukaemia stem cells which has proved difficult to study until now. In order to completely cure leukaemia this subpopulation needs to be eradicated. Having designed a method for measuring the activation of signalling pathways, they applied it to the PI3-kinase pathway, one of the most frequently mutated pathways in cancer. However, the methodology can be used to measure several pathways in a single test, which means that oncologists can rapidly assess which pathways are relevant to an individual tumour.

Since pharmaceutical companies are tailoring cancer drugs to suit specific pathways, this method offers a means of identifying at an earlier stage which drug will be most effective. The method could also have significance for research and development activities such as drug screening and prognosis.