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New Promise for Australian-Invented Cancer Drug

December 6th, 2018

A landmark discovery made in Melbourne twenty years ago continues to give hope to cancer sufferers, with a new clinical trial showing the drug Venetoclax may be beneficial in the treatment of metastatic breast cancer.

In 1988, scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) discovered the BCL-2 protein, which enables cancer cells to survive. This sparked a large international research effort that led to the development of the drug Venetoclax. The drug switches off the BCL-2 protein, allowing cancerous cells to die naturally and making them more susceptible to chemotherapy. Venetoclax was first approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in 2016 for advanced leukaemia and has only been used in blood cancers to date.

Now, in a world-first, medical oncologist Prof Geoff Lindeman (Royal Melbourne Hospital, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and WEHI) has shown that this drug could be beneficial for people with metastatic breast cancer. In the trial, 42 women were treated with a combination of Venetoclax and Tamoxifen for three years. The drug combination was well tolerated with minimal side effects.

Prof Lindeman said that even though this was an early safety trial and not designed to assess efficacy, 75% of the participants experienced a clinical benefit. “This result has provided an exciting basis for further Venetoclax studies, where the hope would be to produce deeper and more durable treatment responses for women affected by breast cancer,” he said.

This trial was the first time that Venetoclax has been used on solid tumours. While further studies are required to confirm the effectiveness of the treatment, Prof Lindeman is optimistic. “We are excited by the findings and what it could mean for patients with incurable hormone receptor positive breast cancer.”

The researcher was funded in part by the National Breast Cancer Foundation and was published in the journal Cancer Discovery.