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Mesothelioma research - action on arginine

Sarah shares her exciting research into treatments for mesothelioma, a devastating lung disease.

Sarah MartinMesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by breathing in asbestos dust, devastates lives.

Right now we have no cure for it, and only 1 out of every 10 people who are diagnosed will survive longer than three years.

But research has identified its Achilles' heel. And now we want to find out how we can exploit it.

A critical need

Chemotherapy is often the go-to treatment for mesothelioma - but more than half of people gain only 2-3 more months of life, or fail to respond to it completely.

It's clear to me that there's a critical need for a more focused approach to treatment. To find more effective ways of helping people with mesothelioma, we need to learn what drives its growth.

I lead a team of 7 researchers, from PhD students to clinical research fellows and postdoctoral researchers, and our lab is focused on finding new ways of treating cancer based on their genetic makeup. We first became interested in mesothelioma when working with Dr Peter Szlosarek, who discovered that half of mesothelioma tumours have lost the function of a certain gene called ASS1.

This gene produces an amino acid called 'arginine', which is one of the building blocks that cells - and so mesothelioma - need to grow. Those mesothelioma tumours which have lost the ability to produce arginine themselves are forced to get it from the blood instead. So by blocking them from getting the arginine, we can kill the cancer cells. A recent clinical trial attempted this, and we saw encouraging activity.

Our research

In our research, we use a library of drugs that have been used to treat other conditions to see if they have any positive effect in treating mesothelioma. We're looking for a drug that might treat those mesothelioma tumours which don't produce arginine. These drugs will potentially kill the tumour cells without harming the healthy cells, reducing the difficult side-effects that often happen with chemotherapy.

They could be used alone, or in combination with other drugs that starve mesothelioma of arginine. This approach is called 'synthetic lethality' and has been successful for treating some breast cancers and ovarian cancers which are deficient in a different gene.

Excitingly, we have already found some approaches that we're investigating further. They suggest that we might be able to stop the cancer becoming resistant to the drugs used to treat it, which is often a big obstacle in cancer treatment. Ultimately, drugs that look promising which we think could effectively be used to help people with mesothelioma will be taken forward into the clinic.

The inability to produce arginine is common to several difficult to treat cancers, so our work could potentially shed new light on those too.

Making a difference

It's always challenging when experiments we hoped would be successful don't work, or when results happen very slowly, and especially when people's lives are so dependent on it. But it's the days where an important experiment gives us good results that make those tough times worth it.

When that happens, you know those results could mean a new way of treating people and change everything for them and their families. We're working with the British Lung Foundation on this project as they have a specific interest in mesothelioma, and unfortunately it's difficult for research into this condition to be supported by the major research funding agencies.

But as a charity, they depend on your generous donations to keep investing into our work. Action Mesothelioma Day is an opportunity to talk about this deadly lung condition so that we can make more people aware of its devastating impact, but also the great opportunities research can provide.

Make a donation today towards our research and you can change the lives of people affected by mesothelioma.


My Husband Richard Tuck has been under Peter for 9 months on trap trial still stable and doing well

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24 June 2015