Professor Peter Gunning’s Drug Discovery Project is just one of the important scientific studies The Kids’ Cancer Project is funding in 2017. While the charity has pledged $550,000 to further Prof Gunning’s ground breaking work this year, the relationship between scientist and supporter was forged some years ago.
Where it all started
In 1999, Prof Gunning and his research team at The University of New South Wales, Sydney (UNSW), discovered a new class of drugs called anti-tropomyosins (ATMs), which force a cancer cell to self-destruct without impacting any of the healthy cells around it.
The Kids’ Cancer Project stepped in immediately to fund the pioneering study.
The architecture of a cancer cell had long been a target of scientists seeking new cancer treatments. However, because the building blocks of a cancer cell mirror those of the heart and other muscles, all attempts to target cancer cells in this way had previously failed.
In 2014, the team discovered that the protein tropomyosin, a building block in cancer cells, is sufficiently different from the building blocks used in heart and muscle cells so it can be safely targeted. It has a long chain with a head and a tail offering up a variety of points to target.
“It is much like what happens when you see a building collapse on the TV news. Anti-tropomyosins cause the structure of the cancer cell to collapse – and it happens relatively quickly,” said Prof Gunning.
After 15 years, the incredible scientific discovery was ready for the next step - to be developed into a safe, workable treatment.
Discovery to drug therapy - a long road
Enter Novogen, an emerging oncology-focused biotechnology company based in Sydney. In 2014, they took on the challenge to create a viable pharmaceutical specifically to target the tail end of the protein.
For almost three years, a team of dedicated scientists worked on the project; conducting pre-clinical studies and evaluating the ability of one particular drug, Anisina, to meet stringent criteria. Unfortunately, Anisina did not achieve key requirements set out by the company and the clinical development of it was terminated.
Prof Gunning explained that the length of time it takes to reach such a heart breaking conclusion is to be expected, particularly when you take into consideration the drugs in development have never before existed.
“The idea that there is a research team in Australia working to develop new types of cancer drugs in a specific area of childhood cancer is remarkable. Unusual is probably a better word. This is an area of high risk,” Prof Gunning said. “But every study we do, builds learning for the next, and the next. Science is a long road with a lot of fine tuning along the way.”
Exciting new developments
Fine tuning in Prof Gunning’s lab has yielded some exciting developments over the past few months.
“We are moving into development of a new range of ATMs to target the cancer cell from another angle. In the lab we’ve already discovered that by targeting the weakest structural point of the cancer cell, not only does the structure fall apart, but the cell stops receiving growth signals as well. We could never have predicted this. It’s a side bonus!” Prof Gunning said.
“Science creates a smorgasbord of opportunities. We’re developing drugs and treatments that are no longer ‘one-size-fits-all’. I want to give children the right treatments for them, not just adult treatments,” Prof Gunning said. “I’m determined. I’m here for the long game. And when you’re surrounded by a group who are just as determined as you are to make a difference, you can do almost anything.”
That style of determination along with robust in-vitro results caught the attention of the Federal Government earlier this year. Through the Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-P) scheme, up to $3M in cash over three years will be applied to the development of a next-generation ATM program. Novogen is the lead partner in the collaboration which involves UNSW and ICP Firefly Pty Ltd, a Sydney-based contract research organisation.
Dr Stephen Palmer, the CRC-P Program Director at Novogen commented, “We have learned a tremendous amount over the past few years. This means that future tests on ATMs will move a lot quicker. It’s not enough to find a cure for childhood cancer, we’re looking to ATMs to be a kinder, safer drug as well.”
Never giving up
Owen Finegan, The Kids’ Cancer Project CEO, commented on the ongoing support of this research and other studies like it, “The Kids’ Cancer Project is a strong, long-time believer in the science behind Prof Gunning’s discovery. We will continue to support ATM research in relation to childhood cancers while unearthing other studies which will have the greatest impact. Our ultimate goal is to bring about one hundred per cent survival of children with cancer while at the same time minimising the harmful impacts of treatment.”
For the charity’s founder, Col Reynolds, it’s a very personal quest.
"I’ve made promises to kids who have died,” he recently said in an interview with Seniors Newspaper
. “I told them I wouldn't stop until a cure was found so 'other little kids won't have to go through what you're going through'.
"You shouldn't make promises to kids unless you are prepared to commit.
"I feel sure that sometime in the future I'll stand in front of a TV camera with Peter Gunning and be able to say to parents who have lost their children, and to families that have broken up because a child has died, that here is a cure and I've kept my promise."