Cancer research breakthrough reduces pancreatic tumour growth

Photo credit:​ iStock

Dr Phoebe Phillips

University of New South Wales | 2012 | $594,336

Australian cancer scientists have established a highly hopeful nanomedicine that could improve treatment for Australia’s deadliest cancer—pancreatic cancer. Most often diagnosed at an advanced stage, this type of cancer has one of the lowest survival rates.

When tested in mice, the nanomedicine decreased growth of tumours by 50 per cent—reducing the spread of pancreatic cancer.

Published in the journal Biomacromolecules, the research provides guidance and fresh optimism for pancreatic cancer patients who—after diagnosis—generally die from the disease within three to six months.

Lead researcher Dr Phoebe Phillips, from UNSW’s Lowy Cancer Research Centre, said it was distressing for her colleagues when they had to inform patients that the best chemotherapy drug available could only extend their life for four months.

‘We recently identified a key promoter of tumour growth, cancer spread and chemo-resistance in pancreatic tumours called βIII-tubulin. Inhibition of this gene resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in tumour growth and reduced the spread of the cancer in mice,’ Dr Phillips explained.

What is nanomedicine?

Nanomedicine is the science of developing new healthcare breakthroughs that are designed and constructed on the nanometre scale (the nanoscale). The nanoscale is incredibly small—one nanometre (nm) is one-billionth of a metre, equivalent to the size difference between a marble and the earth.

The issue with intensely targeting this gene is being able to effectively deliver drugs to it.

‘A major reason for the lack of response to chemotherapy is that pancreatic tumours have an extensive scar tissue which makes up to 90 per cent of the tumour,’ Dr Phillips said.

‘This scar causes pancreatic cancer cell chemotherapy resistance and is a physical barrier to chemotherapy drug delivery to tumours.’

This nanomedicine however consists of a state of the art nanoparticle that can package small RNA molecules (RNA is normally an intermediary between DNA and protein) and greatly inhibit the βIII-tubulin gene to overcome the problem.

The researchers have proven that their innovative nanoparticle can deliver doses of small RNAs to pancreatic tumours in mice, despite the presence of scar tissue, and successfully inhibit βIII-tubulin.

This NHMRC and Cancer Council NSW supported research has the possibility to progress new therapies to target the drug-resistant cancer to advance the success rate of ongoing chemotherapies, which could increase survival of the patients and a much better quality of life.

‘The significance of our nanomedicine technology lies in its potential to inhibit any tumour-promoting gene or a cocktail of genes personalised to the genetic profile of a patient’s tumour,’ said Dr Phillips.

‘This work has the potential to develop new therapies to target this drug-resistant cancer and improve the effectiveness of current chemotherapies, which may increase survival and quality of life for pancreatic cancer patients.’

This research collaborates two of Australia’s leading chemists, UNSW Associate Professor Cyrille Boyer and Professor Tom Davis from Monash University. UNSW Professor Maria Kavallaris and Dr Joshua McCarroll from the Children's Cancer Institute are also main associates in the research team.