Theories abound about how best to curb the growth of cancer cells.
One body of thought about a decade ago focused on “starving” cells — an approach that had many hopeful but was ultimately unsuccessful. Recent research, however, adds new dimensions to the theory, which has many in the scientific community working toward breakthrough assistance for cancer patients.
The original research approached cancer cells with a basic truth about all human cells: The main ingredient needed for growth is oxygen. A tumor essentially is “fed” through oxygen in the blood vessels but is so dependent on oxygen that it begins to grow its own blood vessels to keep itself supporters. Researchers initially thought that if they could interrupt that growth process, they could effectively starve the tumor of oxygen and kill it.
A series of anti-angiogenesis drugs sought to do just that, but researchers found that, when the oxygen supply was lessened, cells were ready with a back-up plan: Protein production went into overdrive to protect the cells. The reactions that followed are known as hypoxia, and that’s where scientists are now focusing their efforts.
A new approach
Researchers are now working to curb some of the reactions that occur during hypoxia. Particularly, they’re focusing on the production of the proteins HIF-1 and HIF-2, which can help cancer cells thrive and multiply, even when oxygen levels are low.
Several years ago, scientists at the University of Texas discovered what could be HIF-2’s Achilles’ heel: The protein has a large cavity inside of it. That revelation led to the development of the drug PT2399, which burrows into and divides HIF-2. The therapy has suggested promising assistance for cancer patients; it slowed tumor growth in more than half of the mice on which it was tested.
A similar drug is being tested on humans and, while it’s still in the very beginning stages, there are early indications of success, with few side effects.
Cancer research is an ever-evolving field, but each breakthrough is a building block that means new and innovative assistance for cancer patients is within reach.