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Sussex researchers awarded top prize for cancer drug research

University of Sussex scientist Professor Laurence Pearl and his team have been awarded one of the UK’s most prestigious cancer research prizes for their work on a new class of drugs that can knock out the defences tumours use to make them resistant to treatment.

Professor Pearl and his colleagues Dr Chris Prodromou and Dr Mark Roe share the 2013 Cancer Research UK Translational Cancer Research Prize with Professor Paul Workman and his team from the The Institute of Cancer Research, London for ten years of work to shed light on the structure and function of a protein called Heat Shock Protein 90 (HSP90) – and to design and evaluate drugs that target it.

HSP90 is critical for many processes that are fundamentally important in cancer, so inhibiting it with the new drugs hits cancer hard in several different ways simultaneously, undermining its growth, survival and spread. Targeting HSP90 also knocks out several important molecular mechanisms that are used by cancers as a way of side-stepping the effects of treatment.

Drug resistance is widely recognised as the major challenge in cancer treatment, even with the new targeted therapies, and HSP90 inhibitors have already entered clinical trials worldwide. The inhibitors could be used against a wide range of cancers including those of the lung, breast, prostate, ovaries and colon.

One of the new inhibitor drugs, called AUY922, is now showing promise in patients with drug-resistant cancers. HSP90 inhibitors have shown encouraging results too in breast and lung cancers and the more advanced HSP90 inhibitors are now progressing to phase III trials.

The most promising advanced trials so far include phase II clinical studies in patients with HER2-positive breast cancers that have become resistant to the commonly used antibody drug trastuzumab (Herceptin), and also in patients with non-small cell lung cancer who have become resistant to existing commonly used drug therapies.

Both the clinical results and the new prize are a vindication for the collaborative team, who met with years of scepticism from many doubters in the scientific community and industry who believed that HSP90 would not work as a target for cancer therapy. Critics argued that the approach was too risky and that HSP90 inhibitors would have unacceptable side-effects.

The research team reasoned that it was possible to develop effective and well-tolerated drugs because all of their ‘hits’ would be specific to cancer. They were convinced that because cancer cells are more dependent on HSP90 than healthy cells there would be a window of opportunity to achieve anti-cancer responses while minimising side-effects – and their prediction has now been shown to be correct.

Professor Pearl, who is Professor of Structural Biology in the MRC Genome Damage and Stability Centre and heads the School of Life Sciences at the University of Sussex, led the team’s research into the fundamental understanding of how HSP90 functions before moving from the ICR in 2009.

He says: “This award is recognition for a truly multidisciplinary scientific approach, which brought together basic, translational and clinical research in a pioneering collaboration. It was structural biology that gave us the insights into the 3D structure and function of HSP90, which in turn helped us to design prototype drugs which could disrupt its action.

“I’m proud that we have been able to carry out this successful research in the UK academic sector – arguably, no other group of researchers in the world could have done this work.”

Fellow award-winner Professor Paul Workman, Deputy Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London and Director of the Cancer Research UK Cancer Therapeutics Unit, initiated and led the HSP90 drug research programme, says: “This is a fantastic achievement for our team and terrific recognition for our translation of basic knowledge of HSP90 into drugs like AUY922 that are now showing activity in cancer patients.

“In the shorter term, HSP90 inhibitors are likely to be used in patients who have become resistant to current treatments, but in the future they could play an even bigger part in tackling cancer as an early-stage treatment and preventing drug resistance arising.

“Our multidisciplinary team has played a leading role in moving HSP90 from a poorly appreciated target to one of the most actively pursued in the drug industry today, in spite of the initial incredulity and scepticism from many who questioned whether we could discover an effective and safe drug acting on HSP90.”

Professor Dr David Scott, Director of Science Funding at Cancer Research UK, says: “The HSP90 team is an exceptional group and their research is a model for academic drug development that should inspire others.”

The award was presented at the The Institute of Cancer Research's annual conference (Mon 4 November 2013). The award is given annually for outstanding research that bridges the gap between science in the laboratory and the development of new treatments for patients.

Notes for Editors

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Last updated: Tuesday, 5 November 2013