pancreatic cancer patients, new drug
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Scientists have invented a new drug which could improve life expectancy and quality for patients with hard-to-treat cancers, such as pancreatic cancer

The scientists from the University of Sheffield founded the spin-out company Modulus Oncology, along with a team of experienced biotech entrepreneurs. The company aims to fast-track the drug into clinical testing within two years.

The Sheffield researchers made the discovery after examining a hormone, called adrenomedullin, which controls blood pressure and other vital body processes, but also stimulates the growth and spread of cancer.

Using novel drug molecules, known as adrenomedullin-2 receptor antagonists, the team found a way to block the way that adrenomedullin is used in communication with cancer cells, without affecting the way it helps to regulate vital processes in the body such as blood pressure.

The findings were published in ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science. They reveal how the new drug molecules have a positive effect in the treatment of pancreatic cancer in mouse models.

Hard-to-treat cancers

Out of all common cancers, pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate, with only 7% of patients surviving five-years after a diagnosis.

Professor Tim Skerry from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Oncology and Metabolism, said: “The most extraordinary part of this new therapy is the fact that nature designed the hormone adrenomedullin to have two different types of receptor – one which helps to regulate our blood pressure and the other which is involved in the way that cancer cells communicate with each other and the host cells, helping cancers to grow and spread.

“We have designed a unique piece to fit into nature’s jigsaw which will block signals from one receptor but allow the other to work as normal.

“In blocking the hormone’s communication with the cancer cells, we are cutting off its supply to the things that it needs to thrive. This means tumours can’t grow as fast as they are starved of the resources they need, and it becomes more difficult for them to spread to other areas of the body.”

An extended life expectancy and improved quality of life

The novel drug molecules were found to be effective in treating pancreatic cancer tumours in mice models. Tumours did not grow as fast which suggests that people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer would have an extended life expectancy.

The compound is different from traditional therapies such as radiotherapy, as it targets a very small number of cells and does not damage healthy cells in the body. It is hoped this will also improve the quality of life of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and other hard-to-treat cancers.

Professor Skerry added: “Pancreatic cancer tumours are notoriously aggressive and difficult to treat, and their location makes it easy for the cancer to spread to nearby organs such as the liver and stomach. The nature of pancreatic cancers means it is hard to get current drugs into the tumour.

“We believe adrenomedullin-2 receptors offer advantages for pancreatic cancer patients.

“Previous advances in treating pancreatic cancer and improving patient outcomes have had little effect on life expectancy. There are still cancers that are resistant to treatment and research is needed to solve those problems.”

It is thought the concept will also be beneficial in other traditional hard-to-treat cancers such as relapsed breast cancer and lung cancer.

Dr Alan Wise, CEO of Modulus Oncology, said: “The team at the University of Sheffield have performed some truly pioneering research here and I am delighted to be helping Modulus Oncology take this vital work towards clinical testing.

“Our goal is to demonstrate benefit for cancer patients as well as growing a successful UK biotech company.”

Modulus Oncology is currently in discussions with several life science investors to raise funding for the first-in-human clinical trials.

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