Cancer is the leading cause of death in the world. The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2030, more than 13 million people worldwide will die each year from the disease. In Australia, the Cancer Council approximates that more than 125,000 people are diagnosed with cancer each year. Cancer is the cause of death for three out of 10 Australians and with an aging population and longer life expectancy, the incidence of cancer is increasing. However advances in treatment has seen the the survival rate of cancer patients increase by around 30 percent over the last two decades and prognoses for many cancer types continue to improve.
Our team at the University of Sydney is at the forefront of cancer research. Our researchers are world renown in their respective fields of natural products and drug design, understanding the underlying biology of cancer, and developing better methods of targeting drugs to cancers.
Natural product based drugs
This research, led by Associate Professor Colin Duke, deals with the isolation of bioactive compounds from extracts of Australian plants and animals. In a recent investigation, Associate Professor Duke’s team investigated a new potential drug that is found in Accacia paradoxa tree residues stuck to the legs of Kangaroo Island honey bees. The full paper can be read here.
New drugs for treating cancer can be designed from scratch as new cellular targets are discovered. Alternatively, drugs can be developed by taking compounds already known and modifying their structure to make them more potent. Professor Paul Groundwater and colleagues have published a paper in which they made naturally occurring compounds in the lab via a process called total synthesis. The compounds (particularly spermatinamine, which was originally found in marine sponges), display potential in treating leukaemia (a blood-based cancer) and colon cancer. The paper can be accessed here.
Despite decades of research, scientists still do not fully understand yet how cancers grow and spread. Dr Dong Fu’s particular research interest lies in liver cancers and his work examines how hepatocyte cells stick to each other. He uses a combination of cell biology, biochemical and imaging techniques to investigate the mechanism of hepatocyte polarisation. Recent work of his has been published in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, available here.
It is common for patients undergoing chemotherapy to experience, what is for many, severe and debilitating side-effects from their treatment. These side-effects arise because the drugs don’t only attack cancer cells, but any cells in the human body that grow quickly (such as hair follicles, bone marrow and the linings of the stomach and intestine). Cancer drugs can therefore be much safer and manageable if methods can be developed that make them only target cancers and not healthy tissue. Dr Wojciech Chrzanowski and Dr Ramin Rohanizadeh lead the faculty’s development of improved anticancer drug delivery. Recently Dr Chrzanowski developed a means of targeting cancer drugs to tumours using iron nanoparticles and strong magnets. A description of his results in given in the journal Pharmaceutical Research, which can be accessed here.
Dr Rohanizadeh’s interest lies in the development on new biomaterials, in tissue engineering and nanoformulation. In recent research he examined the use of nanoparticles made from the mineral hydroxyapatite as a means of delivering gene therapy. His work was published in the journal Therapeutics Delivery, found here.
Drug transporters are functional cell surface membrane proteins, which play critical roles in drug absorption, distribution and elimination. Because of their unique ability to transport specific drugs, they have been widely been studied as the targets for drug development. Dr Fanfan Zhou is interested in the molecular regulation of critical solute carrier drug transporter families (SLCs) and their pharmacogenetic variation on the transport and distribution of anticancer drugs. In recent work published in the Journal of Pharmacogenomics and Pharmacoproteomics, Dr Zhou reviewed the work being undertaken worldwide to understand the role and function of organic anion transporters. The paper can be accessed here (PDF).
Platinum, the versatile precious metal used in such things as jewellery, electronics and car parts can also be found in some drugs used to treat ovarian and testicular cancer.
Metals have been used since antiquity to treat disease and many modern medicines have atoms of metal at their heart. Platinum-based drugs are one of the most regularly used families of agents in cancer treatment and include cisplatin, carboplatin and oxaliplatin. Research into platinum anticancer drugs is being led by Dr Nial Wheate, whose group utilises a bench-to-bedside drug development approach. This approach looks at the complete discovery pipeline from drug concept and design, to solid state pharmaceutics, testing and evaluation using in vitro and in vivo models, dosage formulation and drug delivery. In an editorial in Nanomedicine, Dr Wheate discussed the future of platinum drugs and recent research efforts in the field. The article can be read here.
Aggressive tumours adapt quickly, finding a way to develop resistance against drugs. Doctors can use different combinations of drugs to prevent cancers from developing resistance, but the tumours still find a way to defeat the drugs. As such, we need new drugs that can utilise multi-targeting pathways. One way forward is to examine the signalling pathways of cancer, in particular the role of oncogenic kinases. This research, led by Dr Rebecca Roubin, identifies potential new drugs in herbs, especially herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. Her approach uses Bioactivity-Directed Fractionation and Isolation (BDFI).
Recently, Dr Roubin determined the anticancer activity of compounds from Hedyotis diffusa in metastatic colon, cervical, liver, leukaemia and prostate cancer cells, and whilst they were active against these cancer cells they did not harm healthy immune cells. Studies are continuing to identify the cancer signalling pathways involved in different types of cancers and the development of novel anticancer therapeutics.
- Full paper