Study uncovers genes which affect chemotherapy impact

In collaboration with the Press Association

Researchers have identified 87 genes which appear to affect the sensitivity of human cancer cells to certain chemotherapy drugs.

Scientists from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre used a powerful technology called RNAi, which allows scientists to block the action of individual genes in a cell and assess the cell's reaction to subsequent chemotherapy.

They found that blocking the action of certain genes in lung cancer cells rendered the cells up to 10,000 times more sensitive to paclitaxel, a chemotherapy drug also known as Taxol.

The finding could potentially lead to doctors being able to administer lower chemotherapy doses, which would help to reduce the unpleasant side effects experienced by patients.

Dr Michael White, professor of cell biology at the university and senior author of the study, described traditional chemotherapy as a "very blunt instrument" and said that the effects of the treatment were very inconsistent.

"Identifying genes that make chemotherapy drugs more potent at lower doses is a first step toward alleviating these effects in patients," he said.

Postdoctoral researcher Dr Angelique Whitehurst explained that tests involving other chemotherapy drugs, vinorelbine (Navelbine) and gemcitabine (Gemzar), produced less dramatic results, suggesting that the genes in question are "highly specific for paclitaxel".

Dr Anthea Martin, science information officer at Cancer Research UK, commented: "If this 'gene blocking' technique' could be used in patients, it may mean that lower doses of paclitaxel could be given, which would still be effective and reduce side effects."

However, she warned that the research has so far only been performed on isolated cancer cells in the laboratory and it is not yet known whether the technique will work in actual tumours.

"This will take more research, and we look forward to future developments," she added.