Discovering novel drugs to treat cancer

Tuesday, 28 June 2005

- NUI Galway Researcher wins Donegan Medal -

A postgraduate researcher at the National Centre for Biomedical Engineering Science (NCBES) NUI Galway, has identified a molecule which could be used in the future as a novel drug in cancer treatment.

Ailish O'Connell was awarded the Donegan Medal for her research presentation at the Royal Academy of Medicine (RAMI) summer meeting in Galway organised by NCBES Director, Professor Terry Smith.

Ailish's research is in an area called apoptosis, which is a natural process whereby cells in the body die when they are damaged, are not functioning or no longer needed. A common factor in cancers like leukaemia is an upset in the balance between cell growth and cell death by apoptosis. If the natural process of cell death does not occur, cancerous cells survive for longer than they should, and acquire further mutations.

Ailish, whose research is supervised by Dr. Catherine Stenson-Cox at the NCBES, has studied the process of cell death by treating leukaemic cells with chemotherapeutic agents (similar to chemicals used in chemotherapy for cancer patients).

By studying the pathway by which human leukaemic cells die following this treatment, Ailish has identified a novel pathway (part of the cell death process) that hasn't been known before and has found a specific type of molecule, a serine protease, which Ailish and her team believe is critical in this cell death pathway.

Serine proteases (SPs) are a family of enzymes with many functions, but their role in cell death is only now being uncovered. "Very few with apopotic function have been isolated to date, but modulation of some family members have already been used in therapies for emphysema and some are in clinical trials for solid cancerous tumour treatment," says Ailish. "They have huge therapeutic potential and there is a lot of commercial interest in this area of research."

The serine protease discovered in Ailish's research was tracked in the cell through the process of cell death using a fluorescent tag provided through collaboration with the US Company Immunochemistry Technology Inc., based in Minnesota. All indications point to this SP being instrumental in the novel apoptosis pathway discovered by Ailish.

The SP Ailish is looking at chops up proteins in cancerous cells causing cell degradation and the cell is then digested by the body's immune response. The aim now is to characterise and re-introduce the serine protease molecule into leukaemic, and other cancerous cells to selectively activate cell death which could lead to novel anti-cancer therapies.

The research is funded through an SFI basic Research Grant, administered through the Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology (IRCSET) awarded to Dr. Catherine Stenson-Cox in 2004.

*Professor Donegan was a former Professor of Physiology at NUI Galway. The competition for the medal is a national one open to all PhD students who haven't presented to a learned Society previously.

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