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Existing medicines show promise for treating stomach and bowel cancer

Feb 4, 2014

Stomach and bowel cancer, two of the most common cancers worldwide, could be treated with a class of medicines that are currently used to treat a blood disorder, a Melbourne research team has discovered.

The finding, in preclinical models, that medicines called ‘JAK inhibitors’ reduce the growth of inflammation-associated stomach and bowel cancer provides the first evidence supporting their use in treating these cancers.

JAK inhibitors are currently used to treat the cancer-like condition myelofibrosis, and are being investigated in clinical trials for the treatment of conditions including leukaemia, lymphoma, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Dr Emma Stuart, Dr Tracy Putoczki and Associate Professor Matthias Ernst from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute made the discovery with colleagues while at the Melbourne-Parkville Branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Associate Professor Ernst is also currently a Ludwig Member. Their findings have been published in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.

Stuart said the discovery stemmed from the research team’s long interest in the links between inflammation and cancers of the digestive tract. “Recently we have begun to unravel the complex signaling that occurs in inflamed tissues, such as when a person has a stomach ulcer or suffers from inflammatory bowel disease, and how this drives cancer development,” she said.

 “By understanding the molecules that are involved in promoting the survival and growth of cancer cells, we have been able to identify which of these molecules can be targeted with potential anti-cancer treatments. In this case, we determined that proteins called JAKs are involved in cancer formation in the stomach and bowel. It was exciting to discover that when JAKs were blocked with existing medications (JAK inhibitors), bowel and stomach cancer growth in experimental models was slowed, and many of the cancer cells were killed,” Stuart said.

Ernst said the findings were significant as JAK inhibitors were already available and had shown success in clinical trials, particularly for treating cancer-like blood conditions.

“Our team’s research has uncovered several proteins that could be valuable targets in treating cancers of the digestive tract,” he said. “The reason this discovery is particularly exciting is clinical trials have already shown that JAK proteins can be safely and successfully inhibited in patients. We hope this will expedite bringing our research to possible clinical trials that may improve the outlook for people with stomach and bowel cancer,” Ernst said.

The research was supported by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and the Victorian Government.

About Ludwig Cancer Research

Ludwig Cancer Research is an international collaborative network of acclaimed scientists with a 40-year legacy of pioneering cancer discoveries. Ludwig combines basic research with the ability to translate its discoveries and conduct clinical trials to accelerate the development of new cancer diagnostics and therapies. Since 1971, Ludwig has invested $2.5 billion in life-changing cancer research through the not-for-profit Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research and the six U.S.-based Ludwig Centers.

About the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has more than 750 researchers who are working to understand, prevent and treat diseases including blood, breast and bowel cancers, diabetes, arthritis, coeliac disease and malaria.

There are more than 100 national and international clinical trials originating from research undertaken at the institute. These include trials of vaccines for type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease and malaria; and trials of a new class of anti-cancer drugs, called BH3-mimetics, for treating patients with leukemia.