23 August 2005

It may be possible to halt cancer in its tracks by blocking a gene critical to building tumour supply lines, according to new research carried out at The University of Queensland.

Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience have found that the gene known as Sox18 is switched on only for 48 hours when new blood vessels are forming, most obviously in a developing embryo, but also in tumours.

“In adult mice, we have found that interfering with this gene reduces tumour growth by up to 80 percent,” says postdoctoral scientist Dr Neville Young. “A surprisingly large number of people carry microscopic tumours inside their bodies but these cells never develop into disease.

“One of the reasons these cancerous cells do not rage out of control is that they never establish a blood supply to feed them. Those unlucky enough to develop malignant tumours often do so when cancerous cells co-opt the body's own blood supply.”

Sox18 has an important role to play in helping specialised cells travel to the right position and then form the tubes needed for blood flow.

Dr Young said that targeting blood vessels was not a new concept in the fight against cancer, but that one of the big problems was the side effects of current treatments.

“The novel thing about targeting Sox18 is that it is only turned on in new blood vessels feeding the growing tumour,” he said. “It does not seem to affect any other blood vessels in the body. By attacking only Sox18 we might be able to stop these new vessels forming while leaving the rest of the blood supply alone.”

The next step is to test whether researchers can manufacture a drug for humans that can mimic the observed effects in mice. They also need to design a delivery system to get the drug to the growing blood vessel cells to switch Sox18 off.

The early stages of this research are already underway with preliminary results expected within two years. This is dependent on ongoing funding for this research.

Neville is one of 13 Fresh Scientists who are presenting their research to the public for the first time thanks to Fresh Science, a national program sponsored by the Federal and Victorian Governments. The best Fresh Scientist will win a trip to the UK courtesy of the British Council to present his or her work to the Royal Institution.

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