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Women in laureates’ team up to target cancer

Media release
12 November 2009

The Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery – a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by The University of Auckland

Women in Science laureates’ team up to target cancer and ageing

Two L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureates are joining forces to screen compounds that may shut down an enzyme that plays a major role in ageing and cancer.

Chemistry Professor and Maurice Wilkins Centre Investigator Margaret Brimble from The University of Auckland and Professor Nancy Ip from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have received a grant from the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science and Technology for a collaborative research programme focused on developing new treatments for cancer and ageing. The former LOréal-UNESCO For Women in Science laureates will use the grant to study the effects of rubromycin compounds on the human enzyme telomerase the enzyme that makes it possible for some cells to divide forever.

“Most human cells can divide only a certain number of times before the protective ends of their chromosomes – called telomeres – become too short,” says Professor Brimble. “Once this happens, the cells can no longer divide and they die. This is part of the ageing process. However, cancer cells can make telomerase to keep their chr`mosomes long, effectively making the cells immortal. Finding a compound that inhibits the telomerase enzymeᾠprovides a unique `pportunity to targῥt cancer.

Professor Brimble says rubromycin, an antibiotic made naturally by a strain of bacteria, was first discovered to inhibit telomerase in 1990. Since 2003, she and her PhD student Dominea Rathwell, have been trying to make a specific type of rubromycin (called gamma-rubromycin) synthetically in the lab. Their breakthrough has recently been published in one of the world's top chemistry journals, Angewandte Chemie. Their paper was selected as a VIP paper (very important paper) that recognises the top five percent of papers submitted to the journal.

The new compounds were made with the help of funding from the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by The University of Auckland.

“The family of compounds that gamma-rubromycin belongs to have very complex structures. We’ve been able to develop a new method to make these compounds that is much quicker and much more efficient,” says Professor Brimble. “Our molecules can now be easily changed to allow us to probe the structural features responsible for their a΅ticancer properties. We can also make other compounds based on their structure, some of wῨich are active against HIV.

Professor Brimble will work with Professor Nancy Ip who will screen the compounds to see which ones have the strongest effect against telomerase. Over the next few years the teams will combine forces to develop even better telomerase inhibitors than the natural compound, gamma-rubromycin.

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