Lethal Lifesaver

Almost exactly three years ago (goodness me, it seems like a couple of months!) I wrote a piece about one of the novel approaches to cancer therapy being tried around the world. This exploits an effect called synthetic lethality that refers to the death of a cell as a result of a combination of mutations in two or more genes whilst mutation in either of these genes alone leaves the cell perfectly functional. The example involved two distinct pathways that repair damaged DNA – recall that our genetic material is being continuously assaulted in a variety of ways and that we’ve evolved very effective repair strategies. One of these involves a pair of familiar ‘cancer genes’, BRCA1 and BRCA2, mutated forms of which can be inherited to give rise to several types of cancer. The other requires an enzyme called PARP (for poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase). So the idea is that if BRCA mutations block that route the cell becomes dependent on PARP. Stop PARP functioning and the cell accumulates genetic damage that it is eventually unable to live with. Result: death of a cancer cell.

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Synthetic lethality. If there are two distinct signaling pathways in a cell, each of which can be blocked without harming the cell but when both are inhibited simultaneously the cell dies, the effect is called synthetic lethality. The enzyme PARP (poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase 1) normally repairs single-strand DNA breaks. When this pathway is blocked by PARP inhibitors single-strand DNA breaks accumulate together with double-strand DNA breaks. If cells have normal BRCA, the double-strand breaks are repaired by a second pathway involving BRCA and the cell survives. However, in cancer cells with mutant BRCA this pathway is impaired. The use of PARP inhibitors means that neither pathway can work and the inhibitors, in effect, selectively target and kill cancer cells with BRCA mutations.

‘Three cancers for the price of one’ summarized small-scale clinical trials of several related PARP inhibitors, including one called olaparib, treating breast, ovarian and prostate cancers (BRCA mutations cause about 5% of breast cancers and 10% of ovarian cancers and they can also give rise to prostate cancer). The drugs showed effects on all three tumour types but in a subsequent trial there was no significant survival benefit for breast cancer patients.

Whilst that was a set-back I was sufficiently prescient to comment that ‘the PARP story is far from over’ and indeed further trials have shown significant effects on ovarian cancer, olaparib prolonging progression free survival from 4.3 months to 11.2 months. On this basis  Lynparza (aka Olaparib) was approved in December 2014 in both Europe and the USA for the treatment of advanced ovarian cancer with mutated BRCA.

This is only one more small step along the road to equipping us with a comprehensive anti-cancer drug cabinet but it is, of course, good news for the patient group who should benefit. For my colleague Steve Jackson and his team who developed this approach it must be a wonderful moment and they can look forward to following the success of the drug, now being marketed by Astra-Zeneca.

Three cancers for the price of one?

Damaging the DNA Double-helix

A colleague of mine works on double-stranded DNA repair, as it’s called in the trade. This is something that goes on in all of us as our cells patch up DNA that’s being continuously assaulted by things that cause mutations. One source of damage is radiation that can snip the double helix, leaving separate bits of chromosomes floating around in the nucleus. Anything involving ‘snipping’ suggests a pretty potent type of mutation and it does indeed present a real problem because the cell has to find ways of tagging the floating ends, bringing them together and stitching them up. Amazingly, Nature has come up with not one but several ways of doing this and, by and large, they work pretty well. In ferreting around to define the proteins involved, my friend and his team also tried out drugs that might block repair. Having found a very effective one they set up a company to develop it – duly taken over by AstraZeneca, with the result that I now know one person in science who is very rich. The hope is that the drug might work against ovarian, prostate and breast cancers – which would be very good news for AstraZeneca!

But, you may already be asking, what’s the use of a repair blocker? Surely that’s the last thing you want in staving off cancer? Well, yes – and no. All things being equal, you do want to keep repair systems working but, if one of them becomes defective as part of cancer development, knocking out another may push the cell over the brink so that it can’t deal with the DNA chaos and commits suicide.

Bear in mind that our picture of cancer is one of widespread damage to DNA. But the genetic anarchy of cancer has parallels with the political variety in that both have limits. If the Molotov cocktail fraternity so disrupt society that the binmen stop collecting rubbish, everyone dies of cholera – not exactly a great social reform. Cancer too walks a tightrope between the disruption needed to overcome normal cell control and an extreme level of chaos that would simply kill the cell.

Two of the most familiar ‘cancer genes’ are BRCA1 and BRCA2, mutated forms of which can be inherited to give rise to several types of cancer. It turns out that both BRCAs play roles in DNA repair. The drug that has improved my friend’s bank balance is olaparib and it targets another DNA repair pathway – involving an enzyme called PARP (for poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase). So that’s why it’s useful: if the BRCA route is already blocked by mutation, inhibiting a second repair pathway (PARP) may scupper the cancer cell.

BRCA mutations cause about 5% of breast cancers and 10% of ovarian cancers and they can also give rise to prostate cancer. Small-scale clinical trials of olaparib and several related PARP inhibitors have shown anti-tumour effects against all three of these cancers. However, the most recent trial showed no significant effect on survival of breast cancer patients. Whilst this is a set-back for the PARP inhibitor field, another trial has shown significant effects on ovarian cancer.

As so often in the history of cancer treatment, great expectations have taken a bit of a knock but the PARP story is far from over and it still holds the promise than one class of drugs may be effective against several different types of cancer. If it were to turn out that way it would be great news for some cancer patients – and not bad for one or two bank balances.