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Unlocking the Mysteries of Cell Signalling

Queenstown Molecular Biology Meeting

Media Release
Friday August 25

Unlocking the Mysteries of Cell Signalling.
the Key to Curing Disease

The inaugural Queenstown Signal Transduction Meeting from August 31-September 3, 2006 will see over 150 international and New Zealand molecular biologists focus on one of the frontiers of medical science; the complex circuits that control everything which goes on in the human cell.

QueST follows on from the annual Queenstown Molecular Biology Meeting (August 29-Sept. 1) which for 16 years has established itself as the most innovative scientific conference in the country.

Convenor of QueST, Professor Peter Shepherd, from Auckland University says this inaugural meeting brings together top scientists from around the world involved in signal transduction research.

“This is the first time in NZ that we have seen such a high level meeting of talented scientists and clinical researchers in the signal transduction area to discuss the latest exciting progress between basic science and medical treatment of disease, “says Professor Shepherd.

“Participants will present their latest discoveries, which are at the very leading edge of science, and discuss how their ground-breaking results can be used to understand and treat life-threatening diseases, and provide new hope for patients.”

Professor Shepherd says that scientists have long suspected that defects in the enormously complex circuits that control cell behaviour contribute to diseases like cancer, diabetes, arthritis and asthma. The problem was that no one knew how the circuits actually worked.

The task can be likened to being given a computer chip and trying to figure out from scratch exactly how it works and why it is going wrong. This was a seemingly impossible task, but the last few years have seen spectacular progress in decoding these cell signalling pathways.

Even though the unravelling of these cell circuits is only partly complete, this information is now starting to have practical clinical benefits, allowing medical scientists to understand how defects in these pathways can cause certain types of cancer. This has not only meant improved diagnosis, but the creation of new treatments that specifically target these defects.

One such example is Herceptin . This is in fact a genetically engineered antibody that attacks a molecule called the ErbB2. ErbB2 is a part of the cells signalling network that controls the ability to grow and divide. Approximately 25% of breast tumours produce huge excesses of ErbB2 and this contributes to the growth of the tumour. Herceptin achieves its therapeutic effects by neutralising the ErbB2 in these cells.

An even more spectacular success story has been the drug Gleevac. This is a drug that blocks the actions of a signalling molecule called BCR/Abl which is produced specifically in a cancer called chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). CML was previously an untreatable disease but recent studies have shown that Gleevac causes sustained remission in nearly 100% of CML patients.

According Professor Peter Shepherd, “This is a great example of how the long term public investment in basic scientific knowledge is now bearing fruit.”

The success of drugs like Herceptin and Gleevec has given scientists a great deal of encouragement and as a result well over a 100 new drugs are in development targeting cell signalling defects in cancer. The scientists from the USA, Europe, Australasia and Asia gathered at the Queenstown Signal Transduction meeting this week will discuss the latest developments in the field and the latest progress in developing new treatments.

An example of this is an enzyme called PI 3-kinase. This enzyme controls many of the cell’s functions and about 30% of cancers have been found to possess mutations in this gene that leads to an increase in its activity. A number of speakers, including Professor Peter Parker from Cancer Research UK and Dr Shaun Jackson from Monash University, will highlight how new drugs targeting this enzyme are likely to be of use in treating cancer

“These developments are only the tip of the iceberg and scientists believe that the ever increasing understanding of cell circuitry will lead to many more new treatments,” says Prof. Shepherd.

Some of the key speakers at the QueST meeting are:

Professor Sir Philip Cohen, Dundee, Scotland.
One of the international gurus of cell signalling. His work has been key to unravelling the secrets of signal transduction and he is now actively involved in new treatments for disease.

Professor Peter Parker. Cancer Research UK, London.
Leading international expert in this area and the founder of a company which has developed a new class of anti-cancer drug that targets a key point in the signalling pathways.

Dr Shaun Jackson- Monash University, Melbourne.
World leader in research into the mechanism involved in blood clotting and has developed a new class of drugs that target cell signalling in this pathway. These also aim to provide a new way of treating heart attacks that is more effective with fewer side-effects.

Professor Peter Shepherd- University of Auckland.
Organised 30 laboratories in NZ and Australia to pool resources to map cell pathways. This will allow scientists to rapidly determine where they are in this complex web during research. It is like a ‘Navman’ for the cell.

For further information on the full programme for the QueST satellite meeting please visit and follow the link to QueST.


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