Cancer Research Technology, Cardiff University, The Institute of Cancer Research and German drugmaker Merck Serono are combining their research power and financial muscle under a new collaboration focusing on the discovery of novel drug targets in a particular signalling pathway in the body.

The alliance will work on finding small molecule inhibitors of the WNT pathway, which is involved in embryonic tissue development and tissue maintenance throughout life. Mutations in this pathway can alter its regulation and thereby leave it permanently “switched on”, which is known activate the development of many different cancers including those of the bowel, breast and skin.

Explaining the theory behind the project, lead scientist Professor Trevor Dale from Cardiff University said: “A WNT signal will instruct a cell to grow, divide and behave like a stem cell. Cancer mutations break the molecular switches that connect WNT proteins to cell growth. This in effect leaves the pathway permanently switched on,” and he added that the alliance “will allow us to convert these biological insights into therapies which one day may help us treat cancer patients”.

The collaboration was originally set up by CRT – the commercial arm of Cancer Research UK – following work funded by the charity’s Discovery Committee. Specific financial details of the deal were not disclosed, but it was reported that Merck Serono will contribute “substantial funding” to boost that already invested by the other parties.

Dr Phil L’Huillier, CRT’s director of business management, said the partnership represents “a significant endorsement for investment in the development of early scientific research”, and that it is “testament to the promise of the lab-based research that we are now in a position to take it forward with such a large-scale project and begin to think about new treatments for cancer patients”.