New class of blood cancer drug on trial

20 May
Consultant haematologists and clinical trial leaders Associate Professor Mark Dawson (right) and Dr Michael Dickinson (left) at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
Consultant haematologists and clinical trial leaders Associate Professor Mark Dawson (right) and Dr Michael Dickinson (left) at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

The first-in-human trials to cure leukaemia and multiple myeloma are the result of an eight-year research project led by veski innovation fellow Associate Professor Mark Dawson, head of the Cancer Epigenetics Laboratory at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

The first Australian to participate in this trial is Mrs Caroline Hangay who has acute myeloid leukaemia, a rare cancer that accounts for 0.8 per cent of all cancers diagnosed. Having trailed a number of treatments, including three types of chemotherapies that failed to improve her condition, Mrs Hangay chose to participate in the trial, even if only to contribute to finding a new treatment.

However, after just thirteen weeks, results are promising, with Mrs Hangay now only spending three or four hours receiving a blood transfusion, and now being able to spend more time with her two-year-old child and husband.

Mark commented that the epigenetic drug works by manipulating the way the body "reads its barcode”, switching off cancer-causing genes. Epigenetics is the study of cellular variations that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence.

While conventional cancer treatments can lead to nausea, diarrhoea and hair loss, the drug on trial is within a new class of drugs called epigenetic BET inhibitors that work on a genetic level.

"Epigenetics is all of the processes that control our DNA, how it is repaired, how it is replicated, how the genes present within our DNA are expressed in a particular time and a particular place," Mark Dawson said.

"This drug is there to really try and fine-tune that process and reset that balance that has gone awry in cancer.”

The announcement was made on International Clinical Trials Day, commemorating 20 May 1747, the day on which James Lind started his famous trial comparing treatments for scurvy.

Clinical trials are an essential step in transforming laboratory research findings into better health care for cancer patients," the Cancer Council Victoria’s clinical network deputy chair, Orla McNally said.

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