PhD graduate discovers potential anti-cancer compound

Press Release – Victoria University of Wellington

A discovery by a Victoria University PhD graduate could help contribute to new cancer drugs. Dr James Matthews, who is graduating next week with a PhD in Biomedical Science, has been studying a compound in a fairly common marine sponge that had previously …9 December 2011

PhD graduate discovers potential anti-cancer compound

A discovery by a Victoria University PhD graduate could help contribute to new cancer drugs.

Dr James Matthews, who is graduating next week with a PhD in Biomedical Science, has been studying a compound in a fairly common marine sponge that had previously been shown to have potential to kill rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells.

But, says Dr Matthews, although the make-up of the compound had been revealed, little was known about how it would interact with proteins, which is the key to the efficacy of most drugs.

Dr Matthews “went fishing” in his laboratory to test which proteins would be affected by the marine compound, called pateamine, eventually narrowing the field from around 20,000 proteins to just four.

“The results were exciting because, at the time, there were no known inhibitors for one of those, the eIF4A protein.”

He checked the findings of this discovery by screening a library of around 12,000 mutant strains of yeast genes to find out which were sensitive to the marine compound.

Victoria has a state-of-the-art Chemical Genetics Laboratory that allows researchers to investigate genetic interactions, screen new compounds for bioactivity and understand basic cell processes. The lab uses baker’s yeast, which had its genome fully sequenced in 1995, as a model.

Dr Matthews says his work has provided evidence that pateamine could be a starting point for developing anti-cancer drugs that target the eIF4A protein.

While identifying a possible new drug compound is an exciting result, he says the work has, just as importantly, illuminated the mechanical workings of eIF4A.

“The compound from the marine sponge also acts as a biological probe to help us understand the role of eIF4A and how it functions.

“That knowledge has the potential to feed into new treatments and therapies for cancer if, for example, we found cancerous tumours that contained a lot of this protein.”

Dr Matthews began studying for his Bachelor of Biomedical Science in the first year the course was offered at Victoria and when on to complete Honours before starting his PhD.

He intends to continue his research through post-doctoral study.

ENDS

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