Fragment kills cancer

Scientists from A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore and the National University of Singapore have developed a new synthetic protein fragment which can target and kill cancer cells.

Scientists from A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) and the National University of Singapore (NUS) have developed a new synthetic protein fragment which can target and kill cancer cells.

The team is now working on an improved version that will be more specific and therefore have fewer clinical side effects for the treatment of a group of cancers known to be caused by a family of disease-causing viruses. The research was recently featured on the cover of the prestigious scientific journal, Cell Cycle.

The team, led by Dr. Stephen Hsu, Group Leader at GIS, and Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Medicine, NUS, successfully developed a short synthetic protein fragment that disrupts cell division. When applied to cancer cells, the fragment prevents further cell multiplication and leads to cell death.

The findings have shed new light on what was previously known about proteins that regulate cell division. Already, other laboratories in the USA and Europe have requested samples of the synthetic proteins to test the relevance of the team’s findings to other biological contexts. International collaborations with these laboratories are being discussed.

Dr. Hsu, a clinician-scientist who is also a practicing medical doctor at the National University Hospital (NUH), explained the significance of the discovery.

“Although the synthetic protein fragments that we have developed are effective at killing many types of tumour cells, we are particularly interested in its use for the treatment of diseases such as genital warts and cervical cancer that are caused by members of a family of viruses – the human papilloma viruses. The synthetic protein fragments are predicted to be highly specific for tumours caused by members of this family of disease-causing viruses. We are hopeful it will lead to the development of drugs that will be highly specific and effective even when given at low doses,” he said.

According to Dr. Hsu, currently available treatment using chemotherapeutic drugs tends to indiscriminately kill off both healthy and cancerous cells, resulting in the familiar symptoms and side effects such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting.

“Our aim is to design a drug which will be very specific for the diseased cells because doctors can then prescribe it at relatively low doses, which in turn will cause less severe or minimal side effects,” explained Dr Hsu.

A*STAR’s commercialisation arm, Exploit Technologies, has already filed a provisional US patent for the use of the novel protein fragment in the treatment of skin cancers, other skin conditions such as psoriasis and genital warts, and lesions in internal cavities such as the cervix and nose, which are common both in Singapore and worldwide. Genital warts and cervical cancers are known to be caused by human papilloma viruses.

Moving forward, Dr Hsu’s group has started work on designing improved “second generation” synthetic protein fragments that are expected to be even more effective against cancer cells. His team has recently generated preliminary results that show that the drugs are effective at preventing the growth of various types of tumours in mouse and chicken animal models. This is the first step towards paving the way for approved studies in cancer patients.