News in brief: Pancreatic cancer ‘fortress’ targeted; Breast cancer overdiagnosis claims rebutted; Billion dollar oncology group up for sale

20 May 2021

Novel approach targets the fibrosis ‘fortress’ protecting pancreatic cancer

Researchers at the University of NDSW are re-purposing an arthritis drug to treat pancreatic cancer, using sulfasalazine to target the dense scar tissue ‘fortress’ that makes the tumour resistant to chemotherapy.

A team led by Associate Professor Phoebe Phillips have been working for a decade on cancer-associated fibroblasts – the so-called ‘helper cells’ that generate the fibrosis that creates a physical barrier to drugs.

They have shown that SLC7A11, a cystine transporter, is key to fibrosis, and that inhibition of the protein significantly decreased fibroblast proliferation, reduced their resistance to oxidative stress, and inhibited their ability to remodel collagen and support cancer cell growth

The team’s findings have formed the foundation for a clinical trial using sulfasalazine – which potently inhibits SLC7A11 – for the treatment of around 50% of pancreatic cancer patients with tumours that have high SLC7A11 levels.

“It has the potential to improve treatment response and ultimately survival of these patients,” Associate Professor Phillips said.

“Using an approved drug has allowed us to get this piece into the clinic much faster than what would be the case if we started from scratch with drug development, too,” she added.

Breast screening overdiagnosis concerns overstated

Cancer control agencies are pushing back against claims that breast cancer screening may cause significant harm through overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

In a Perspective published in the MJA, authors led by Dr Vivienne Milch, Medical Director of Cancer Australia, said that while overdiagnosis of breast cancer may be an inevitable consequence of the national population screening program, the benefits of early diagnosis outweighed the harms of possible overtreatment.

They said that for every 1000 Australian women screened for breast cancer every two years from age 50 to 74 years, around eight breast cancers may be found and treated which would not otherwise have been found in a woman’s lifetime. An equivalent number of breast cancer deaths would be avoided in these women.

“Based on current international evidence, if left untreated, more than 90% of cancers found through routine screening would progress and become symptomatic and be potentially lethal, depending on modelling assumptions,” Dr Milch and colleagues wrote.

Private oncology provider has $2 billion price tag

Australia’s largest private cancer and oncology services provider, Icon Group, is being sold off in a $2 billion-plus auction..

The company’s current owners are seeking from multi-national healthcare groups and global private equity firms, , according to the Australian Financial Review.

In 2017 the company was reportedly bought for $1 billion by a consortium led by Queensland Investment Corporation, which said a predicted 70% increase in cancer rates in the Asia-Pacific region would help fuel the growth of the business.

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