Cancer sometimes involves processes that should only occur in the embryo being mistakenly reactivated in adult cells.
Researchers at the Postgraduate Medical School at the University of Surrey have exploited this to develop a novel therapeutic strategy. This has led to the development of a new drug, HXR9 that blocks the activity of a group of genes known as the HOX family.
The project leader, Dr Richard Morgan, explains ‘HOX genes are important in determining the identity of cells and tissues in the early embryo, but they are also expressed by cancer cells. HXR9 blocks HOX activity thereby killing cancer cells in a highly specific manner’. HXR9 shows particular promise in treating malignant melanoma together with lung, prostate and kidney cancer. The results appear this week in the prestigious ‘Cancer Research’ Journal. Work on HXR9 was started by Dr Morgan whilst he was a senior lecturer at St. George’s, University of London, and the University of Surrey has recently agreed a licensing deal to allow Dr Morgan to continue with the work at the PGMS.
Further work by the PGMS group has shown that embryonic genes expressed in cancer cells could also be important diagnostic markers. A number of embryonic proteins are secreted by prostate tumours and can be detected in blood serum, thereby providing a potential method for detecting prostate cancer and ultimately even assessing the extent of the disease without an invasive procedure. These findings have now been patented by the University of Surrey. Dr Morgan and his colleagues would like to acknowledge the support of both the University and the Prostate Project charity.