Cancer Research UK (CR-UK) is investing £10 million (€13.2 million) in small-molecule drug discovery programmes at four universities across the UK as part of a wider effort to boost the flow of anticancer candidates into clinical trials.

Project leaders at Imperial College London, the University of Oxford, the University of Strathclyde and London’s School of Pharmacy will each receive grants of £500,000 per annum over five years for research aimed at generating new and targeted drugs to treat a range of cancers.

“Recent advances in our understanding of the biology of cancer have revolutionised the way we discover drugs, using specific targets as starting points,” noted Professor Herbie Newell, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of clinical and translational research. “The four projects will embrace this method of drug discovery. We hope the discoveries will complement our existing drug development programmes and other aspects of the charity’s work, including trials geared towards improving existing treatments for cancer patients.”

Among the grant recipients, Professor Charles Coombes and Professor Tony Barrett at Imperial College London will investigate ways to overcome the common problem of drug resistance in the treatment of breast and prostate cancer. At the University of Oxford, Professor Steve Davis will work on new drugs that specifically target enzymes involved in leukaemia and other cancers.

Led by Professor David Thurston, efforts at the University of London’s School of Pharmacy will be directed at discovering new compounds that can block interactions between proteins acting as signalling mechanisms in the growth and spread of cancer cells. Professor Simon Mackay at the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences will target key signalling proteins in prostate cancer with the aim of developing more effective drug treatments.

Record investment
Last year Cancer Research UK said it had invested a record £315 million in research during 2006, almost twice as much as when it was set up five years previously. The charity, which funds over 4,250 research scientists, doctors and nurses throughout the UK, plans to increase research expenditure to £400 million by 2010. Another measure of CR-UK’s commitment is the £20 million it is sinking into a state-of-the-art facility at the charity’s Clare Hall laboratories in Hertfordshire for researchers from its Biotherapeutics Development Unit.

The small molecule programmes supported in the latest round of funding are one strand of a major strategic initiative to raise significantly the level of cancer drug discovery research in the UK and improve the integration of drug discovery activities. CR-UK launched the programme following a comprehensive review of its drug discovery activities in 2005/06.

A number of cytotoxic drugs developed by CR-UK scientists, such as melphalan, chlorambucil, busulphan, carboplatin, temozolomide and raltitrexed, are already widely used in cancer patients while other compounds, including cytotoxics and targeted agents, are currently in Phase II or Phase III clinical trials.

As the charity points out, advances in understanding the molecular and cellular biology of cancer have led to a paradigm shift in cancer drug discovery, with target identification and validation now the springboard for developing new therapies. Recent successes such as imatinib (Glivec/Gleevec, Novartis) for chronic myeloid leukaemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumours or trastuzumab (Herceptin, Roche) for c-ErbB2 amplified breast cancer have proved the validity of this approach, CR-UK adds.

"Drug treatments for cancer - cancer chemotherapy - are the only modality with proven curative activity in the management of patients with disease that has spread beyond the primary site, the situation that is found in over 50% of patients when they first develop cancer," Professor Newell commented. "Although Cancer Research UK has a strong track record in cancer drug discovery, new and more effective drugs that are active in settings that are currently hard to treat are urgently needed."