Edinburgh researchers target cancer-encouraging protein

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found substantial potential in a drug which better equips the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

The drug, examined via a study in the journal Cell, is specifically designed to act as an inhibitor to a protein which is over-produced by tumours.

The protein, called focal adhesion kinase or FAK, is not in itself damaging. It sends signals that assist in keeping healthy cells moving and growing.

However, an excess in FAK production by cancerous tumours prevents the immune system from attacking cancerous cells.

The drug will be effective by modulating and balancing the immune cells in the tumour, further enabling an efficient response in the body’s immunity system which pertains to a destruction of cancerous cells in the body.

Dr Alan Serrels, one of the lead authors, works with the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre at the University of Edinburgh.

He said: “FAK is hi-jacked by cancer cells to protect them from the immune system. This exciting research reveals that by blocking FAK, we’ve now found a promising new way to help the immune system recognise the cancer and fight it.

“FAK inhibitors are already in clinical trials and have generally been well tolerated, so could potentially be an excellent complement to existing immunotherapy treatments.”

The research was carried out on mice which had been diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer.

Findings from the research indicate that the FAK inhibitors that were used displayed complete T-cell mediated regression. Results from this study display an evasion of cancerous tumours from the mice, rendering FAK inhibitors effective.

Jonathan Pachter, Verastem Head of Research and co-author of the study, called the findings ground-breaking.

He added: “These early data are encouraging and provide important support for the thesis that FAK inhibitors such as defactinib may be useful in combination with immuno-oncology agents with the goal of yielding more durable responses for a greater number of cancer patients.”

Researchers believe that the drug would not only be effective in the immune system, but simultaneously would offer a way to mitigate the side effects of immunotherapy.

The research was funded by Cancer Research UK, the European Research Council, and the Medical Research Council.

Image: Pavel Maltsev

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