An antifungal medication that’s commonly used for toenail infections could help eliminate dormant bowel cancer cells, new research suggests.
Research from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute have shown that the medication known as itraconazole halts the growth and progression of certain types of bowel cancer in mice. The next step is to see if it works with human participants.
The team characterised the molecular nature of dormant bowel cancer cells. These ‘sleeping’ cells are resistant to drugs, including chemotherapy, which work by targeting cells that are actively growing.
Dr Simon Buczacki, co-lead author and Cancer Research UK clinician scientist, said: “One of the biggest challenges in treating any cancer is the diversity of different cells within the same tumour. We’ve targeted a type of cell that lies asleep within bowel tumours, remaining unresponsive to treatment and putting the patient at risk of their cancer coming back.”
Two key pathways
Scientists identified two key pathways involved in cell dormancy and used miniature bowel tumours grown from the cells of mice with cancer, to test different drugs targeting these pathways.
For the first time, it was found that itraconazole blocked signals from a pathway called ‘Wnt’, which is implicated in the growth and spread of many different cancers. This led to the tumours collapsing in the mice – dormant cells disappeared and the tumour stopped growing.
Buczacki added: “What’s interesting is that this drug seems to kick both dormant and non-dormant cells into action.
“It forces cells back into a short cycle of growth before slamming on an irreversible ‘stop’ button, entering a permanent standstill that’s known as ‘senescence’.”
What is the next stage?
Researchers are hopeful that a clinical trial for humans will be set up to see if this treatment will be more effective on people with hard to treat advanced bowel cancer. They also plan to test the combination of the drug with other treatments like chemotherapy.
Professor Greg Hannon, director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, said: “This innovative study has taken a step toward addressing one of the biggest challenges in cancer research. Tumours are made up of many different types of cancer cells, which can evolve separately and respond to treatments differently.
“The presence of drug-resistant, dormant tumour cells is a problem in many types of cancer. If we find ways to target these cells in bowel cancer, it might provide insights into tackling the problem of dormant tumour cells more broadly.”
Press release: Cancer Research UK