International collaboration to accelerate new cancer therapies

International collaboration to accelerate new cancer therapies

Illuminate newsletter header, Winter 22
June 2022
WEHI has partnered with the leading science and technology company Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany on a drug discovery campaign to find new cancer therapeutics for a range of hard-to-treat cancers. 

WEHI researchers involved in the partnership
WEHI researchers involved in the partnership (L-R):
Dr Karen Doggett, Associate Professor Joan Heath,
Dr Stephen Mieruszynski, Dr Kimberly Morgan.

The four-year partnership will allow the research to progress through the drug discovery pipeline and into human clinical trials. 

Leveraging WEHI’s expertise in minor splicing and the genetic regulation of rapid cell growth and proliferation, the collaboration aims to create new drugs for cancers that currently have few or no effective treatments. 

Therapeutic potential 

Before mRNA is first made into a protein, it is cut into smaller pieces and pasted back together in a process known as splicing. 

Splicing also comes in two flavours: major and minor splicing. WEHI scientists have shown that some cancer types rely more heavily than normal cells on minor splicing

Specifically, they found cancers that carry a mutation in the KRAS gene – including those in the liver and lung – often depend on efficient minor splicing to grow rapidly and spread. These cancers are usually difficult to treat as they quickly become resistant to traditional and targeted therapies, hence the need for new therapies. 

"A novel class of therapeutics for patients with cancers that currently have few treatment options.”

By inhibiting minor splicing, WEHI and Merck KGaA scientists aim to kill these cancers without harming healthy cells. 

The joint WEHI and Merck KGaA project will see high-throughput chemical screening used to find and develop compounds that selectively inhibit this sub-type of splicing and evaluate their potential as novel anti-cancer therapeutics. 

Collaborative power 

The partnership builds on more than a decade of research by Associate Professor Joan Heath, which started with the identification of genes essential for the rapid growth of organs during zebrafish development

Associate Professor Heath said the collaboration would accelerate the development of new therapeutics that could be effective against a broad spectrum of cancers, including those carrying mutations in the KRAS gene. 

“It will allow researchers to fuse WEHI’s pioneering work in minor splicing with Merck KGaA’s drug discovery and development expertise,” she said. 

“Together, we will work towards developing a novel class of therapeutics for patients with cancers that currently have few treatment options.”

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