Researchers find 'exciting' new target for anti-cancer drugs

In collaboration with the Press Association

US scientists investigating a gene called ras, which is implicated in nearly a third of cancers, have found that faults in this gene can cause over-production of a protein called interleukin-6.

The finding, described by Cancer Research UK as 'exciting', provides researchers with a possible new target for anti-cancer drugs.

The 'ras' gene is important for normal cell growth and, when mutated, can lead to uncontrolled cell production and ultimately tumour growth.

Faults in ras have been found in several types of cancer, but attempts to block or turn off the gene have so far proved unsuccessful.

Senior researcher Dr Christopher Counter, associate professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University Medical Centre, explained: "Since it has been so difficult to target the ras gene itself with drugs, we tried to determine if something that ras activates could be a possible target for a drug or therapy.

"We found a specific target that could be susceptible to drugs, and if these findings are proven true in human trials, we could have a new way of treating ras-dependent cancers."

Publishing in the journal Genes & Development, the researchers reveal that the mutated ras gene is responsible for above-normal secretion of a protein called interleukin-6 (IL-6).

Inhibiting IL-6 production using a specially designed antibody blocked the formation of new blood vessels, which are necessary for the development and nourishment of tumours.

Dr Counter described IL-6 as "the gas pedal driving the growth of tumours".

"No gas, no growth, which is exactly what we saw when we inhibited IL-6 in tumours," he revealed.

Henry Scowcroft, Cancer Research UK Science Information Officer, commented: "This is a really interesting result. Interleukin-6 has been implicated as a co-conspirator in the progression of a number of cancers.

"The finding that it's linked to Ras, a 'known felon' in the development of cancer, is exciting, and suggests that IL-6 could be an important target for new cancer treatments."

The researchers hope that therapies designed to inhibit IL-6 could soon enter clinical trials.