Cancer drugs could help thousands more patients

Treatments already being used to treat breast, ovarian and prostate cancers could benefit thousands more patients, a study suggests.

A class of medicines, known as PARP inhibitors, target inherited genetic faults and work by stopping cancer cells repairing DNA damage.

They are currently given to patients who carry faults in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes – often known as the “Jolie genes” after actress Angelina Jolie, who has the first mutation.

She had surgery to reduce her chances of getting breast cancer.

Now researchers, from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, have discovered the drugs may also help destroy tumours linked to faults in another gene, SF3B1.

Mutations in that gene have been implicated in several cancers, including some breast cancers, leukaemia and melanoma.

Dr Simon Vincent, of Breast Cancer Now, said: “It’s incredibly exciting that even more patients could potentially benefit in the future.”

The ICR team assessed 80 drugs. They discovered that PARP inhibitors reduced the ability of cancer cells with an altered SF3B1 gene to survive.

This is because the mutated cells lack a key protein that helps to regulate the cell’s response to the drugs, leaving them vulnerable.

When mice carrying melanoma and leukaemia tumours with an SF3B1 fault were treated with the PARP inhibitor talazoparib, tumour growth stopped and the cancer was prevented from spreading.

Estimates show SF3B1 gene changes affect some 3% of women with primary breast cancers and 7 percent of those with incurable secondary breast cancer that has spread. They can occur in up to a fifth of patients with some types of melanoma and also leukaemia.

Dr Rachael Natrajan, from the ICR, said: “Our findings show that PARP inhibitors can also exploit a weakness in cancer cells which have mutations in the SF3B1 gene and suggest there may be a whole new group of patients who could benefit from this medicine.”

Study author Dr Phil Bland called the results a “huge shift in our understanding of the role of SF3B1 gene changes in cancer cells”.

Johannah Kelly was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2020, nine days before giving birth to her second child.

Her initial treatment included chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy and radiotherapy over 10 months.

She then took a PARP inhibitor called olaparib for a year to reduce the risk of her disease returning.

Joannah, 45, from Croydon in South London, said: “I am a BRCA2 carrier and was very fortunate to receive olaparib, sponsored by my workplace health insurer before it was approved for routine use on the NHS for women like me in April. I remember thinking this could nearly halve my risk of the cancer recurring and I wanted to do anything to prolong my life.

“If I get cancer again in the future, I want to be able to tell my children I did everything possible to reduce that risk.

“It’s incredible to think these types of drugs have the potential to help even more women with breast cancer and people with other cancers as well.

“I’m so grateful for the research that Breast Cancer Now funds as it has the potential to help so many patients – and to ultimately save lives.”

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