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Towards a Better Treatment for Head and Neck Cancers? Western Australian Institute for Medical Research Study Reveals

10/25/2012 9:43:57 AM

25th October 2012 -- Researchers from the Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR) have taken an important step towards improved treatment of head and neck cancers with new work that has been published by the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers, led by Professor Peter Leedman, conducted an in vitro study to explore a potential synergy between a tiny RNA molecule, miR-7, and erlotinib, a drug currently used to treat head and neck cancers.

The two first authors on the study, Felicity Kalinowski and Keith Giles said that although erlotinib was used in the treatment of many cancers, it was often not very effective, with only 20 to 30% of patients deriving much benefit from the drug.

“The responses are typically short and tumours often build up resistance quite quickly when erlotinib is used on its own,” explained Ms Kalinowski. “However, when we combined this drug with the anti-cancer microRNA called miR-7, its effectiveness increased. “

miR-7 is a microRNA which was identified by Professor Leedman’s team to act as a tumour suppressor through inhibition of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EFGR) and its downstream signaling pathways that promote cancer development and progression. MicroRNAs are small RNAs encoded in the genome which act as master regulators to control the expression of sets of genes and entire cellular pathways, and they have potential as a new class of cancer drugs.

“miR-7 seems to offer an advantage over recent EFGR-targeted drugs, like erlotinib,” said Dr Giles. “It targets several members of the EFGR pathway, hitting at multiple levels simultaneously, so cancer cells are less likely to survive. Current drugs often block the cancer cells at one level so this approach could be useful to more patients with head and neck cancers.”

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common cancer, with approximately 600,000 new cases globally per annum. The prognosis for many patients with advanced or metastatic cancer is poor.

“We are grateful to the Medical Research Commercialisation Fund which has provided funding for MiReven, a University of Western Australia spin-out company that is aiming to develop miR-7 as a cancer therapy,” said the leader of WAIMR’s Laboratory for Cancer Medicine, Professor Peter Leedman.

“This research is a vital early step in the process and the support of the Medical Research Commercialisation Fund has enabled pre-clinical experiments that allow us to look forward to new and improved cancer therapies,” Professor Leedman said.

Dr Stephen Thompson, Chairman of MiReven Pty Ltd, said the results demonstrated the potential for miR-7 to be a useful adjunctive therapy in the treatment of head and neck cancer.

“microRNA drugs like miR-7 are offering a new direction for cancer therapeutic interventions,” he said. “We have a number of other studies underway and are hopeful that once complete, we will be able to identify a partner to advance miR-7 into clinical development.”

The Western Australian Institute for Medical Research (WAIMR) is assisted in the commercialisation of its intellectual property by the University of Western Australia, through the Office of Industry and Innovation.

The study is published today in the peer reviewed online journal PLOS ONE and is entitled “Regulation of epidermal growth factor receptor signaling and erlotinib sensitivity in head and neck cancer cells by miR-7” by Felicity C. Kalinowski, Keith M. Giles, Patrick A. Candy, Alishum Ali, Clarissa Ganda, Michael R. Epis, Rebecca J. Webster and Peter J. Leedman


WAIMR is Western Australia's premier adult medical research institute, investigating the genetic and environmental causes of a range of diseases. Formed in 1998 with a vision of fostering a high-level of collaboration between the State's medical researchers, our team has made, and continues to make, a number of internationally-important discoveries with the potential to deliver better health to the global community. Currently, WAIMR is situated at two locations - the Perth Campus is located at the Medical Research Foundation building of Royal Perth Hospital, while the Nedlands Campus is at B Block, Queen Elizabeth II Medical Centre.

About The University of Western Australia (UWA)

Established in 1911, UWA is a research-intensive university ranked 96 in the world, 26 for Life & Agricultural Sciences and 51 to 75 for Clinical Medicine & Pharmacy, in the highly respected Shanghai-Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2012. As Western Australia's premier university, UWA is a member of the prestigious ‘Group of Eight’-a coalition of the top research universities in Australia- and one of only two Australian universities to belong to the Worldwide Universities Network, a partnership of 18 research-led universities from Europe, North America, North Asia, Australia and Africa. The commercialisation of WAIMR intellectual property is facilitated through UWA’s Office of Industry & Innovation.

WAIMR Media Contact:

Carolyn Monaghan 0448 021 932

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