Cancer takes the lead as the cause of death in Singapore, and accounts for nearly 30% of all deaths nationwide in 2015 according to the Ministry of Health (MOH).

However, the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School (Duke-NUS) and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Drug Discovery and Development unit (D3) and Experimental Therapeutics Centre (ETC) have developed a new cancer drug which could lower mortality rates of leukaemia compared to conventional chemotherapy.

The drug could also be used to reduce or eliminate potential side effects of other cancer treatments, said Singaporean researchers.

Drug specifically targets enzyme in cancer cells

The drug, known as ETC-206, is a form of target therapy which specifically targets and inhibits Mnk enzyme in cancer cells – an enzyme identified by the researchers as a key player in promoting cancer growth when activated – to effectively curb the spread and progression of the disease, explained Duke-NUS Associate Professor Ong Sin Tiong.

According to researchers, Mnk-inhibition is “a final common path for many human malignancies,” and could potentially be utilisedin the treatment of other cancers. Unlike traditional chemotherapy, which targets cells in a less specific manner, normal cells are unaffected with the ETC-206 and left intact.

"As you can imagine, there are many ways of stopping a car that's going out of control," Ong said, describing cancer cells as cars speeding out of control.

"What we’ve discovered is one specific way of stopping this car – so for example, taking the spark plugs out. So this drug that we’ve developed with ETC specifically hits this … so that the car will come to a stop,” he explained.

ETC-206 was manually synthesised over 60 weeks by a team of chemists, who filtered over 2,000 compounds in 700 possible combinations in order to achieve a formula that fulfilled criteria such as potency, chemical stability and purity. The drug is Singapore’s second publicly funded cancer drug candidate after ETC-159, which targets a wider range of cancers such as colorectal, pancreatic and ovarian cancers, and is still undergoing clinical trials.

Clinical trials ongoing, but a long way to go

The drug is currently in the first phase of clinical trials on 34 healthy volunteers to test for safety and tolerability. According to Professor Alex Matter, CEO of ETC and D3, results from the trial thus far revealed that the drug is well-tolerated by the human body when taken orally.

"If all goes well, in the higher doses we should see some clinical readouts such as a decrease in leukaemic cells. That would be fabulous, and that would encourage us to declare a proof of concept – in principle – to go forward into a Phase 2," said Matter.

"We would still need a larger trial – the so-called pivotal trials, to convince health authorities that yes, there's definite proof that this drug is safe and efficacious. Once we have this definite proof in Phase 3, we can request an approval from the authorities, and then we can think of launching this drug candidate on the market," he added.

Despite the drug’s potential, it could take years before it is made available on the market.

"Drug development - even in large pharma multinational corporations - is a rigorous, extensive and long, drawn-out process that can take more than 10 years on average,” Matter explained. MIMS

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