Babraham research identifies a new target that may keep tumours in check

Babraham research identifies a new target that may keep tumours in check

Scientists at the Babraham Institute, working with collaborators at AstraZeneca, have made a breakthrough in understanding how a particular signalling pathway can promote aberrant cell growth and pinpointed a mutation that enables tumours to circumvent certain treatments. The research, reported on-line in the journal Oncogene, provides new insight into the regulation of a family of proteins called Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptors (FGFRs) which play a key role in controlling cell growth and are frequently implicated in cancer when they become deregulated, for example by mutations. These findings may pave the way for new therapeutic targets and a greater understanding of tumour cells’ versatility to overcome therapies targeting this pathway.

Dr Simon Cook, leading the research at the Babraham Institute, which receives strategic funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) said, “FGFR proteins are found at the cell surface and transmit signals for cells to survive and grow. We are interested in FGFRs because they are important in normal biological processes such as development and wound repair. However, researchers are increasingly interested in the FGFRs as targets to treat cancer. In certain cancers, including breast, gastric, and bladder cancer, as well as multiple myeloma, FGFR proteins are either mutated or their numbers are much higher than normal and such cancer cells become 'addicted' to FGFR proteins, needing them to grow.”

Researchers at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca have developed a new drug that blocks these FGFR proteins in the hope that this will also stop cancer growth. Working with AstraZeneca, Dr Cook and his team have now shown that this drug, called AZD4547, can inhibit the growth of gastric, bladder, breast and myeloma cancer cells, but only those tumours that are addicted to FGFR. They have also looked at how such FGFR-addicted tumours adapt to new FGFR inhibitors such as AZD4547. Dr Cook explained, “We have found that tumours adapt by switching to a new mutant form of FGFR that can no longer bind to or be inhibited by the drug. This is important because even the most successful anti-cancer drugs are limited by the extent to which tumour cells adapt and develop resistance.  If researchers can identify how tumours adapt to these new drugs it may allow doctors in the clinic to develop strategies to prevent such resistance in the future.” A significant problem in treating tumours is their ability to develop resistance to new chemotherapeutic drugs, which causes disease relapse.

Arising from this work, Dr Cook has recently been awarded two new research grants to continue his work on acquired drug resistance in tumour cells. One of these grants is funded by the Worldwide Cancer Research (formerly the Association for International Cancer Research (AICR)) and will continue work on AZD4547. The other is funded by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and will study how tumour cells adapt to drugs that inhibit a key tumour growth pathway inside cells called the ERK pathway. Both grants will continue the collaboration with AstraZeneca, representing a tripartite approach to cancer research involving basic scientists, like Dr Cook, cancer charities and the pharmaceutical sector.

The Babraham Institute is a world-leading centre for studying the basic biology of signalling inside and between cells, supporting BBSRC’s mission to drive advances in fundamental bioscience for better health and improved quality of life. It also seeks to translate its work through collaborations with industry and charities to maximise social and economic impact. Institute Director, Professor Michael Wakelam commented, “This is an excellent example of how Babraham Research continues to attract significant financial support from both industry and charities, to investigate the basic biology behind tumour cells’ ability to overcome therapies, which is an important concern for industry and for patients’ quality of life. Ineffective therapies also pose a significant health economic cost. ‘Knowledge Exchange’ partnerships between academia, industry and charities are critical for ensuring basic research delivers the widest benefit to society and the economy.”

This research was funded by the BBSRC, AstraZeneca, and a BBSRC CASE-studentship with AstraZeneca awarded to the lead author, PhD student Victoria Chell. Dr Cook added, "CASE studentships provide excellent training for PhD students, giving them a cutting edge research project and first-hand experience of working in the commercial sector on applied/translational projects. In addition, in today's tough funding climate, it provides an important way to pump-prime collaborations between academics and the pharmaceutical sector."

Updated 21 October 2015


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Notes to Editors:
About the Babraham Institute:
The Babraham Institute undertakes world-class life sciences research to generate new knowledge of biological mechanisms underpinning ageing, development and the maintenance of health. Our research focuses on cellular signalling, gene regulation and the impact of epigenetic regulation at different stages of life. By determining how the body reacts to dietary and environmental stimuli and manages microbial and viral interactions, we aim to improve wellbeing and support healthier ageing. The Institute is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, through an Institute Core Capability Grant and also receives funding from other UK research councils, charitable foundations, the EU and medical charities.
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, health and well-being and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

AstraZeneca is a global, innovation-driven biopharmaceutical business with a primary focus on the discovery, development and commercialisation of prescription medicines for gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neuroscience, respiratory and inflammation, oncology and infectious disease.