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Auckland cancer drug discovery gets funding boost

Auckland cancer drug discovery gets funding boost

Significant research at the University of Auckland into the discovery and development of new drugs to improve patient outcomes in radiation therapy was one of the high profile research programmes funded in the latest round of Health Research Council grants.

Professor Bill Wilson and his multidisciplinary team from the University-based Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC) were granted nearly $5 million over the next five years to develop new drugs for this neglected setting, and for identifying genetic biomarkers that will match these drugs to patients who will most benefit.

“This grant provides critical support for the overall effort in targeting hypoxia in tumours at the University of Auckland,” says Professor Wilson. Another ACSRC member Associate Professor Adam Patterson also gained funding for two smaller projects in a related area of this research.

The new research programme entitled ‘Biomarker-guided drug targeting of the tumour microenvironment in radiotherapy’ is primarily a drug discovery programme.

“We are looking at taking forward a class of drugs that we understand in detail through Senior Research Fellow Dr Moana Tercel’s medicinal chemistry work, and we expect to be able to identify a clinical candidate in this series in the next year,” says Professor Wilson.

“The programme also involves two early stage drug discovery projects which Associate Professor Michael Hay leads. There is exciting potential here that builds on the understanding that we have developed over some years about targeting hypoxia,” he says.

“The other half of the programme seeks to understand how to identify the patients who will benefit from these drugs. We will be investigating biomarkers that predict which tumours will respond,” says Professor Wilson. “This is a neglected field with great promise.”

“Drug development in the 21st century must move away from huge clinical trials with unselected patients towards targeting drugs to tumours based on their molecular profile.”
The team will focus on head and neck cancers because there is an important need for new drugs in the treatment of these cancers.

“That is the clinical setting where we have the strongest evidence that tumour hypoxia is a major problem,” says Professor Wilson. “Hypoxic tumour cells are not eliminated by conventional radio-therapy, so this is an ideal setting to develop these agents.”

“The key is using our existing knowledge and matching the patient tumour profile with the new drug,” he says. “We know that this is necessary to advance drugs through the clinical development phase.”


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