Greek scientists develop new cancer drug with potential to treat leukaemia

Professor Kouzarides

Professor Kouzarides and colleagues at STORM Therapeutics, and Dr Konstantinos Tzelepis from the Milner Therapeutics Institute at the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Sanger Institute are the two Greek scientists behind a potential treatment for leukaemia, as reported in the prestigious journal NATURE.

Professor Kouzarides
Prof Tony Kouzarides, director of the Milner Therapeutics Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell

The new approach to cancer treatment by Kouzarides and Tzelepis targets enzymes which play a key role in translating DNA into proteins and which could lead to a new class of cancer drugs.

In a study published in 2017, a team led by Professor Tony Kouzarides from the Milner Therapeutics Institute and the Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge showed how one such enzyme, METTL3, plays a key role in the development and maintenance of acute myeloid leukaemia. The enzyme becomes over-expressed – that is, over-produced – in certain cell types, leading to the disease.

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) is a cancer of the blood in which bone marrow produces abnormal white blood cells known as myeloid cells, which normally protect the body against infection and against the spread of tissue damage. AML proceeds rapidly and aggressively, usually requiring immediate treatment, and affects both children and adults. Around 3,100 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK, the majority of whom are over 65 years of age.

Professor Kouzarides said: “Proteins are essential for our bodies to function and are produced by a process that involves translating our DNA into RNA using enzymes. Sometimes, this process can go awry with potentially devastating consequences for human health. Until now, no one has targeted this essential process as a way of fighting cancer. This is the beginning of a new era for cancer therapeutics.”

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Dr Konstantinos Tzelepis

Dr Konstantinos Tzelepis added: “This is a brand-new field of research for cancer and the first drug-like molecule of its type to be developed. Its success at killing leukaemia cells and prolonging the lifespans of our mice is very promising and we hope to begin clinical trials to test successor molecules in patients as early as next year.

“We also believe that this approach – of targeting these enzymes – could be used to treat a wide range of cancers, potentially offering us a new weapon in our arsenal against these terrible diseases.”

(Source: Cambridge University)