Scientists make leukaemia treatment advance

In collaboration with the Press Association

UK researchers have developed an experimental drug that appears to be up to ten times more effective at killing leukaemia cells than existing treatments.

The drug, which was developed by a team at Newcastle University, is designed to treat patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, many of whom become resistant to current treatments.

Drugs for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia work by inducing DNA damage. However, according to Dr Elaine Willmore, a researcher at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research, in some patients, leukaemia cells manage to repair the DNA and survive by employing an enzyme called DNA-PK.

The new drug, NU7441, is designed to target this enzyme and prevent it from repairing drug-induced DNA damage.

Dr Willmore explained: "Our results show that DNA-PK is present at high levels in chronic lymphocytic leukaemia cells from patients with a poor prognosis.

"Chemists at Newcastle University working together with KuDOS pharmaceuticals have designed a new drug called NU7441 that inhibits DNA-PK and stops it from mending broken DNA.

"When NU7441 is combined with drugs used for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia treatment it makes more tumour cells die and 're-sensitises' patients to their chemotherapy."

Laboratory research on NU7441 has shown that it could have a significant impact in patients who have developed resistance to their leukaemia treatment.

"Our exciting results show that in the laboratory, NU7441 'sensitises' the leukaemia cells to routinely used anti-cancer drugs, killing up to ten times more tumour cells - even in cells taken from patients who were very drug-resistant," Dr Willmore revealed.

The study, which was funded by the charity Leukaemia Research, is published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research and the charity's scientific director Dr David Grant described the findings as "incredibly exciting".

"Drugs like NU7441 will help combat chemotherapy resistance in those patients who really need more effective treatment for a form of leukaemia which is diagnosed in 3,500 patients in the UK every year," he said.