S'pore scientists make key find in fight against cancer

SINGAPORE - Scientists in Singapore have identified a human enzyme which, if targeted by drugs, could relieve and prevent a wide range of cancers and other diseases caused by chronic inflammation.

They found that the enzyme telomerase causes and maintains chronic inflammation, a condition that leads to and is responsible for the progression of almost all human cancers.

Developing drugs to target this enzyme could reduce health-care costs for the diseases, and prevent side effects associated with current treatment for them, such as chemotherapy's toxicity, the scientists said.

The research was carried out by the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Cancer Science Institute of Singapore and National University of Singapore.

Their work was published last week in the Nature Cell Biology science journal, part of the prestigious Nature Publishing Group of journals.

Inflammation is the body's defence against injury and infection. Immune cells are called upon to destroy bacterial and viral invaders to protect the body.

During chronic inflammation, however, the defence system is damaged, and the immune cells start to uncontrollably make chemicals that aid development of chronic inflammation-linked diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.

Associate Professor Vinay Tergaonkar from A*Star's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology said the scientists identified telomerase's role by comparing genes activated in normal and cancer cells during the disease's progression.

Subsequent tests on human cancer cell samples showed that once the telomerase in them was switched off, "in a very short time, the inflammation subsided and the cancer cells died", said Dr Tergaonkar.

Although many safe and effective anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin are available in the market, these drugs sometimes have side effects because blocking inflammation could stunt the body's response to injury and infection.

Dr Tergaonkar said the team's next step is to develop a drug which targets some but not all functions of telomerase to prevent it from causing chronic inflammation.

This could take three to four years, he said.

He added that the drug would need to allow the enzyme to carry out its other, essential work in the human body.

Telomerase helps cells to divide safely, which replenishes aged cells in healthy people.

If such a drug is developed, it could "target a range of human ailments with inflammation as an underlying cause", said Dr Tergaonkar.

zengkun@sph.com.sg


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