Breakthrough in understanding of how cancer treatment drugs affect cells

January 14, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—A young Victoria University scientist is part of a team whose work has been published in the prestigious international magazine Science, for research that will open doors to developing much more effective cancer treatment drugs.

Jessica Field, who is due to complete her PhD late in the year, won a highly-sought after European scholarship to allow her to study in Madrid, where she joined a research team led by Dr José Fernando Díaz of the Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas, Madrid, Spain.

The team made the ground-breaking discovery of proving how some existing cancer treatment drugs really work in , by obtaining a high resolution X-ray of the . The research shows a much more exact understanding of how the drugs fight cancer cells.

"In the past, we have used these drugs, understanding their general effect on cancer cells—but without intricately knowing exactly how they work," says Jessica.

The new research means that in the future, scientists all over the world will be better equipped to develop more targeted cancer treatment drugs, with improved capability and fewer side effects.

Professor John Miller, from Victoria University's School of , says he is very proud of Jessica's achievements.

"The research itself is incredible, and has the potential to change the face of in the future. The very fact that it has been published in such a highly regarded publication is testament to its importance, and testament to the brilliant work that Jessica and our colleagues have done."

Earlier in her studies, Jessica made a remarkable discovery when she was asked to take a compound that had not been previously investigated and find out what it does.

She found that the compound, called Zampanolide, has the ability to prevent cancer cells from dividing, which could stop the spread of cancer. But one of its most remarkable functions is the way that it works within the cancer cell.

"The major problem with a cancer drug is that over time, cancer cells can find a way to oust the drug, becoming resistant to the medication," Jessica explains. "Because of the way this new compound interacts with cancer cells, it cannot be removed from the cell, so they can't become resistant to the drug by this mechanism."

Zampanolide was initially isolated by Victoria University's Associate Professor Peter Northcote, from sea sponges found in Tonga, but can now be made synthetically. This, says Jessica, is a major benefit.

"In the past, to find Zampanolide, we would have to individually screen marine sponges for its presence. Now, we can make it in the quantities we require."

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