One cancer gene meets its match

MELBOURNE researchers may have found a way to block a gene that fuels the growth of tumours in about a quarter of stomach cancer cases, paving the way for a new treatment for one of the world's deadliest cancers.

Researchers from the Monash Institute of Medical Research found a gene that produces a protein called toll-like receptor 2 was overactivated in about 25 per cent of cancer patients, after noticing a similar trend in animals.

In the study published today in the journal Cancer Cell, they found the protein was causing tumour cells to grow, and that antibodies could counteract it in mice.

Senior researcher Brendan Jenkins said: "It was quite remarkable, over a 10-week period the antibodies actually stopped these tumours from growing."

The antibody treatment is expected to move into human trials within the next couple of years, and would be offered in addition to existing treatments such as chemotherapy before and after surgery.

"We will identify patients who have increasing amounts of this protein, and treat them with the antibody together with the current standard treatment," Associate Professor Jenkins said.

"Our belief is that by doing that we can stop or slow down the growth of tumours, and reduce the chance they will spread to other parts of the body."

Associate Professor Jenkins said screening for the protein could also be used to capture stomach cancer in its early stages, allowing for more effective treatment.

He said the finding might be relevant to other cancers in which chronic inflammation could lead to the development of cancer, such as colon, liver and lung cancers.

"There is emerging evidence that this gene and genes like it may be playing an important role in other inflammation-type cancers," he said. "We are on the verge of a massive explosion in medical research throughout the world focusing on these toll-like receptors and their role in a number of diseases.

"We are really hitting the most critical, lethal cancers in the world with these findings."

About 2000 Australians are diagnosed with stomach cancer each year, and only a quarter of them survive beyond five years.

Researchers from the Monash institute collaborated with colleagues in Singapore and Japan on the study, as well as Dublin-based pharmaceutical company Opsona.

Publication of the study came as the institute yesterday opened a new centre for genomic medicine, funded by a $1.6 million grant from the Australian Cancer Research Foundation.

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