A chemical compound has been developed that can stop the spread of melanoma by up to 90%. This is one of the first potential drugs that targets metastasis rather than killing cells – and researchers say it could be applied to other diseases, including breast and pancreatic cancer.
Researchers from Michigan State University were building on previous work in which they developed a chemical compound to treat the disease scleroderma. Further investigations have now shown the compound is effective at reducing the spread of melanoma as the same mechanisms are involved in the two diseases.
Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that can spread to other parts of the body. If caught early, the survival rate is good – around 98%. However, if it is caught late the chance of survival is far lower, at just 16%.
It is estimated that 10,000 people in the US die from melanoma every year. In the UK, that figures is around 2,500.
"The majority of people die from melanoma because of the disease spreading," said Richard Neubig, one of the authors of the latest study published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. "Our compounds can block cancer migration and potentially increase patient survival."
The researchers had been developing the compound to treat the disease scleroderma – a rare and fatal autoimmune disease that leads to the hardening of skin tissue and organs. The same mechanism that leads to the skin thickening contributes to metastasis.
The compound works by targeting the gene activity that allows the disease to spread. Genes produce RNA molecules and proteins that help this happen. Their compound, however, was found to stop the proteins from starting the gene transcription process that leads to the disease spreading. Findings showed it reduced melanoma spread by between 85-90%.
Next, researchers hope to work out which melanoma patients have this pathway turned on to establish who would benefit most from it. They are also looking to develop the compound further to establish how exactly it works.
"We are actively pursuing this mechanism and these compounds for fibrotic diseases such as scleroderma, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, etcetera," Neubig told IBTimes UK. "For other cancers, we believe that the same mechanism plays a role in breast and pancreatic cancer so they could well be useful there also."
He also said it would be a long time before the compound will be ready for human use. "It is, unfortunately, not that close to clinical trials – though we are definitely trying to get there. I'd say minimum two to four years before trials could even be started."