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Bid to beat cancer's toxic drugs

The Age

Tuesday February 22, 2011

By JULIA MEDEW HEALTH EDITOR

A TEAM of Melbourne doctors is working on a new cancer treatment that spares patients the unpleasant side effects of poisonous chemotherapy drugs.Professor Miles Prince, of the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, said he and his colleagues were testing "epigenetic drugs" that switch off the controlling mechanisms of genes inside cancerous cells rather than killing them with toxic agents.While the strategy is being hailed as a promising new approach to cancer treatment, Professor Prince said the trial had been made possible only by years of research at Peter MacCallum into how these drugs work and ways to offset other side effects they carry.He said although the drugs being trialled, azacitidine and panobinostat, did not cause common side effects associated with chemotherapy such as hair loss, diarrhoea and vomiting, they did cause some people to lose platelets in their blood cells that assist in the clotting process to prevent bleeding. In many cases, this made the drugs too unsafe for patients to use or limited the amount of time they could receive them.To combat this problem, Professor Prince teamed up with two researchers, Associate Professor Ricky Johnstone and Dr Mark Bishton, to examine the drugs in mice in an effort to understand what the drugs were doing to platelets and what could be done to stop it.This month, the trio reported in the journal Blood that they had achieved this goal, along with finding a compound that could be used in combination with the epigenetic drugs to offset the damage they cause to platelet production.The new combination treatment will be trialled this year on Peter MacCallum patients with the blood cancers myelodysplasia and acute myeloid leukaemia."It's very exciting. We're hopeful that this combination will be better tolerated with less lowering of patients' blood counts," Professor Prince said. "This should mean patients can stay on the drug longer and receive better treatment."Professor Prince said the trial was particularly positive for people with blood cancers because the average age for diagnosis was about 70, leaving many unable to tolerate chemotherapy, the only available treatment for some of these cancers."It's been really challenging to treat these people because previously all we could say was, 'Sorry, we can't do much. We'll just give you some blood and some platelets and hopefully you won't get an infection that takes you away.' So this is a new treatment we can start offering to people who don't really have any other choice," he said.While it is too early to tell if these epigenetic drugs will cure cancer, Professor Prince said researchers around the world were trying to work out which tumours responded to the technique, with the aim of turning the disease into a chronic, manageable condition."We're at early stages . . . but I've got no doubt that this will be another means for treating cancer," he said.

© 2011 The Age

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