Funded by Cancer Research UK, scientists at The University of Manchester have identified a protein that may hold the key to creating more effective drug treatments for melanoma, one of the deadliest forms of cancer. The work has focused on why new drugs, called MEK inhibitors, aren’t as effective at killing cancer cells as they should be. They discovered that a protein, known as MITF, which helps cells to produce pigment but also allows melanoma cells to grow and survive, has been providing cancer cells with a resistance to MEK inhibitors.

After comparing human melanoma cells that respond to the drug to those that don’t, the researchers reduced levels of a protein called SMURF2 in the melanoma cancer cells and then treated the tumour with the previously unsuccessful MEK inhibitor. They found a 100 fold increase in the sensitivity of the cells to the drug. This suggests that the removal of SMURF2 makes the MEK inhibitor a lot more powerful. Discussing these findings, Dr Claudia Wellbrook stated:

“Much of cancer research is now focused on finding new drug combinations. It’s recognised that cancers frequently find new ways to combat even the most novel and highly efficient drug treatments, so we are now focusing on targeting the mechanisms that allow the cancer cells to overcome the drug effects. We’re very excited about the potential for this new approach, especially as it has proved so effective in our experiments.”

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK. It is critical that advances such as these continue to be made so that cancer treatments can be both more effective and less harmful to patients. Following on from these findings, Dr Wellbrook and her team hope to find a drug that can reduce the activity of SMURF2 in cancer cells. If the search is successful then these University of Manchester scientists could provide a more powerful and successful approach to treating melanoma.

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