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Trust backs study to fight asbestos-related cancer

An Addenbrooke’s consultant clinical oncologist is part of an international team led by Queen Mary University of London to make a significant breakthrough in the treatment of a rare and hard-to-treat cancer.

Dr David Gilligan head and shoulders
Dr David Gilligan

Dr David Gilligan at Addenbrooke’s and study colleagues led by Professor Peter Szlosarek at Queen Mary’s Barts Cancer Institute focussed on malignant pleural mesothelioma (MPM), which is an aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the lungs and is associated with exposure to asbestos.

It is usually treated with potent chemotherapy drugs, but these are seldom able to stop the disease.

However, the recent trial found that a treatment that combines a new drug, ADI-PEG20, with traditional chemotherapy increases the median survival of participants by 1.6 months, and quadrupled the survival at 36 months, compared to placebo plus chemotherapy.

The findings are significant, because at five to 10 per cent, MPM has one of the lowest five-year survival rates of any solid cancer, and the approach marks the first successful new type of chemotherapy developed for the disease in 15 years.

The study, sponsored by Polaris Pharmaceuticals and published today in the monthly peer-reviewed medical journal by the American Medical Association JAMA Oncology, involved 249 patients and was supported by dozens of hospitals all over the world, including Addenbrooke’s.

The ADI-PEG20 drug works by depleting the levels of an amino acid, called arginine, in the bloodstream, effectively starving tumour cells.

Professor Peter-Szlosarek head and shoulders
Professor Peter Szlosarek

The trial is the culmination of 20 years of research at the Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London, that began with a discovery by Professor Szlosarek that malignant mesothelioma cells lack a protein called ASS1, which enables cells to manufacture their own arginine. He and his team have since dedicated their efforts to using this knowledge to create an effective treatment for patients with MPM.

The drug may be of benefit in the treatment of other types of cancer. Further studies are planned to assess it in patients who have other types of cancer that are dependent on arginine.

Dr Gilligan, who is a member of the a member of the British Thoracic Oncology Group (BTOG), senior medical editor at Macmillan and a trustee of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation said six patients from Addenbrooke’s took part in the trial over a period of three years.

Dr Gilligan, who is also a consultant oncologist at Royal Papworth Hospital, said:

As a recognised world leader in cancer research Addenbrooke’s was delighted to support this study, which is a significant step forward in the treatment of MPM and potentially other difficult to treat cancers.

Dr David Gilligan

Professor Peter Szlosarek added:

We found the patients who had the drug lived an average of two months longer. Interestingly, there was a group of patients in the study who’ve survived over three years now, which is very encouraging and we are looking at that particular group in more detail.

Professor Szlosarek

To read the research paper visit (opens in a new tab)

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