Robert Young
Robert Young

Med-chem lab eyes major drug tests

March 19, 2009

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Scientists at SFU’s new medicinal chemistry research laboratory are close to testing novel drugs to help prevent osteoporosis and stop the survival of cancer cells.

Robert Young, who holds the Merck Frosst-BC Leadership Chair in Pharmaceutical Genomics in Drug Discovery at SFU, is directing two post-doctoral fellows who are developing dual-action drugs for osteoporosis that marry bone stimulators with bone resorption inhibitors.

Other lab researchers are using a new mass spectrometer to study a cell survival back-up plan that they suspect cancer cells are using to their benefit.

“There’s a process called apoptosis, where aberrant cells are induced to commit suicide,” Young explains. “This is a way the body can kill potential cancer cells before they get going.

“This primary process can be disabled and taken over. A lot of cancers will disable apoptosis to ensure cells never die. When this happens, the body can mount a secondary defense mechanism called autophagy, where cells literally eat themselves up. However it is thought that even this process can be used by clever cancer cells to survive.”

Young says the autophagy process kicks in when cells are stressed, have poor oxygen or can’t really work. In time, autophagy will kill the cells. But in the interim, researchers can use the process, recycling bits of the cell to keep going.

“We have pretty good evidence that when cancer cells are under attack from anti-cancer drugs, or when tumors grow so fast they don’t have time to produce oxygen-carrying blood vessels, they can turn to autophagy to survive until the blood supply can be established.

“If you can inhibit autophagy at that time, you could synergize with cancer drugs and stop rapidly growing tumors. That’s the theory; the problem is, there are no drugs or agents to test that.”

The researchers are currently studying an autophagy-initiating enzyme known as ATG4B, hoping that a blocker of this key enzyme will give them the answer.


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