Sci­en­tists find un­ex­pect­ed an­ti-can­cer ac­tiv­i­ty in range of non-on­col­o­gy drugs — study

As the sec­ond lead­ing cause of mor­tal­i­ty glob­al­ly, the lu­cra­tive field of can­cer treat­ment has elicit­ed a fren­zy of drug de­vel­op­ment and bil­lions in ven­ture fund­ing. But a new study sug­gests that can­cer-killing com­pounds may be lurk­ing in the ex­ist­ing ar­se­nal of non-on­col­o­gy med­i­cines.

By an­a­lyz­ing thou­sands of FDA-ap­proved drugs and com­pounds that have been proven safe in clin­i­cal tri­als, sci­en­tists at the Broad In­sti­tute of MIT and Har­vard and Dana-Far­ber Can­cer In­sti­tute found near­ly 50 com­pounds — in­clud­ing drugs for di­a­betes, in­flam­ma­tion, al­co­holism and even a treat­ment for arthri­tis in dogs — with pre­vi­ous­ly un­de­tect­ed an­ti-can­cer ac­tiv­i­ty.

Todd Gol­ub

“We thought we’d be lucky if we found even a sin­gle com­pound with an­ti-can­cer prop­er­ties, but we were sur­prised to find so many,” said Todd Gol­ub, chief sci­en­tif­ic of­fi­cer and di­rec­tor of the Can­cer Pro­gram at the Broad, Charles A. Dana In­ves­ti­ga­tor in Hu­man Can­cer Ge­net­ics at Dana-Far­ber, and pro­fes­sor of pe­di­atrics at Har­vard Med­ical School, in a state­ment.

The study, pub­lished in the jour­nal Na­ture Can­cer, em­ployed the Broad’s Drug Re­pur­pos­ing Hub, an­a­lyz­ing 4,518 drugs against 578 hu­man can­cer cell lines from the Broad’s Can­cer Cell Line En­cy­clo­pe­dia. Af­ter tag­ging each cell line with a DNA bar­code, the re­searchers ex­posed each pool of bar­cod­ed cells to a sin­gle com­pound from the re­pur­pos­ing li­brary and mea­sured the sur­vival rate of can­cer cells.

Some of the can­cer-slay­ing com­pounds kill in un­fore­seen ways, study lead au­thor Steven Corsel­lo said. Corsel­lo is an on­col­o­gist at Dana-Far­ber and founder of the Drug Re­pur­pos­ing Hub.

Most ex­ist­ing can­cer drugs work by sti­fling pro­teins — but some of the can­cer-killing com­pounds Corsel­lo et al came across ap­peared to work by ac­ti­vat­ing a pro­tein or sta­bi­liz­ing a pro­tein-pro­tein in­ter­ac­tion. For ex­am­ple, the team found that near­ly a dozen non-on­col­o­gy drugs killed can­cer cells that ex­press a pro­tein called PDE3A by sta­bi­liz­ing the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween PDE3A and an­oth­er pro­tein called SLFN12.

Steven Corsel­lo

The re­sults of the analy­sis — which scoured near­ly half of all drugs ever test­ed in hu­mans — sug­gests that some non-on­col­o­gy drugs could be tak­en straight in­to clin­i­cal test­ing in can­cer pa­tients, al­though sci­en­tists will need to en­sure the can­cer culling ac­tiv­i­ty of these drugs is ob­served at con­cen­tra­tions that are tol­er­a­ble in hu­mans. It is al­so im­per­a­tive to con­firm that the pre­dic­tive bio­mark­ers iden­ti­fied in cell lines rep­re­sent dis­tinct pop­u­la­tions of hu­man tu­mors, the re­searchers cau­tioned.

“In con­trast to the repo­si­tion­ing of ex­ist­ing drugs for new in­di­ca­tions, the…re­sults re­port­ed here al­so rep­re­sent start­ing points for new drug de­vel­op­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, when the an­ti-can­cer ac­tiv­i­ty of a drug oc­curs via an off-tar­get mech­a­nism, it is like­ly that fur­ther op­ti­miza­tion for this new tar­get will re­sult in more po­tent and se­lec­tive drug can­di­dates,” the re­searchers wrote.

Re­pur­pos­ing drugs on pur­pose (or by ac­ci­dent) has yield­ed some suc­cess — that the process in­volves large­ly de-risked com­pounds, low­er de­vel­op­men­tal costs, and briefer time­lines don’t hurt ei­ther.

Aside from as­pirin’s car­dio­vas­cu­lar ben­e­fits, Vi­a­gra is an­oth­er heav­i­ly cit­ed ex­am­ple. The drug was orig­i­nal­ly be­ing test­ed as a treat­ment for coro­nary hy­per­ten­sion — but a pesky side ef­fect felt by pa­tients in tri­als cul­mi­nat­ed in its even­tu­al ap­proval as an erec­tile dys­func­tion drug.

Then there’s the seda­tive thalido­mide — which gained no­to­ri­ety af­ter its link to se­vere skele­tal birth de­fects trig­gered its with­draw­al in 1957. How­ev­er, years lat­er it was deemed ef­fec­tive as a can­cer treat­ment, even breed­ing the de­vel­op­ment and ap­proval of even more suc­cess­ful de­riv­a­tives, such as Cel­gene’s block­buster Revlim­id.

Mean­while, Mer­ck’s Vioxx — which was un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly tak­en off shelves af­ter its link to dou­bling pa­tients’ risk of heart at­tack and stroke emerged — could resur­face as a gener­ic treat­ment for a side ef­fect ex­pe­ri­enced by he­mo­phil­ia pa­tients.

But akin to tra­di­tion­al drug de­vel­op­ment, drug re­pur­pos­ing has al­so seen its share of set­backs. Two ex­am­ples of late-stage fail­ures in­clude a bid to use the an­ti­his­t­a­mine, la­trepir­dine, as a treat­ment for Hunt­ing­ton’s dis­ease, as well as the pur­suit of re­pur­pos­ing the an­tibi­ot­ic, cef­tri­ax­one, as a med­i­cine for ALS.

M&A: a crit­i­cal dri­ver for sus­tain­able top-line growth in health­care

2021 saw a record $600B in healthcare M&A activity. In 2022, there is an anticipated slowdown in activity, however, M&A prospects remain strong in the medium to long-term. What are future growth drivers for the healthcare sector? Where might we see innovations that drive M&A? RBC’s Andrew Callaway, Global Head, Healthcare Investment Banking discusses with Vito Sperduto, Global Co-Head, M&A.

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