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04/29/2009

'Model tumours' to cut costs and risks of cancer drug discovery

Griffith University Associate Professor Vicky Avery and Dr Gregory Fechner have secured almost $300,000 from the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia for a unique project designed to reduce the cost and risks associated with developing and testing new cancer drugs.

Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men. In Australia each year 18,700 men are diagnosed and approximately 3000 deaths result from this cancer.

Assoc Professor Avery said the project was to develop three-dimensional tumour models for testing potential new tumour drugs. The models would consist of prostate cancer cells grown, imaged and analysed in 3D. This would provide researchers with a tool to determine whether compounds had the ability to penetrate the tumour mass along with evidence of its effectiveness, providing valuable information well before clinical trials.

"Developing a new drug is a long, risky and expensive process that costs an estimated US$802 million per drug and takes an average of 12.8 years. For every new drug there are many which have not been successful. If we can select promising drug compounds early on we may be able to speed the process," she said.

The project will involve creating tumour models which are representative of the different stages of disease progression.

"Normally we test drugs on cancer cells in a two-dimensional environment on a flat surface, but this doesn't take into consideration the complexities of the real tumour environment in the living patient. We need to show how, and if, the potential drug penetrates the tumour or how it impacts on the cell-to-cell interactions."

While this level of analysis is normally a slow and arduous process, Assoc Professor Avery’s team aims to develop an automated means of analysing these 3D tumour models.  Imaging systems currently in use which allow high-throughput screening of complex cellular interactions will be further developed for this application.

She said the project could prove particularly effective in identifying and progressing new therapeutic compounds for the treatment of later-stage cancers that are unresponsive to current treatments. There is a great need for treatments which are effective against metastatic prostate cancer which spreads to other parts of the body, such as the bone and lymph nodes.

"We hope that this project will help to reduce both cost and risk involved in early-stage drug development and may have wider reaching applications within cancer research."

Associate Professor Avery is a drug development leader at Griffth University's Eskitis Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies.

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