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The antifungal toenail medicine that Cambridge researchers say could help fight bowel cancer

Dr Simon Buczacki, Cancer Research UK clinician scientist
Dr Simon Buczacki, Cancer Research UK clinician scientist

Study by Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute finds it could halt tumour growth

Greg Hannon, director of CRUK Cambridge Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell
Greg Hannon, director of CRUK Cambridge Institute. Picture: Keith Heppell

It is typically prescribed to treat infections in toenails, but Cambridge scientists have found an antifungal medication could fight bowel cancer.

Researchers at the Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Cambridge Institute have shown in laboratory studies in mice that itraconazole halts the growth of certain types of bowel cancer by eliminating dormant cells. Now they will conduct a clinical trial to see if works in patients.

Dr Simon Buczacki, co-lead author and Cancer Research UK clinician scientist, said: “One of the biggest challenges in treating any cancer is the diversity of different cells within the same tumour. We’ve targeted a type of cell that lies asleep within bowel tumours, remaining unresponsive to treatment and putting the patient at risk of their cancer coming back.”

The dormant bowel cancer cells are typically resistant to drugs, including chemotherapy, which target cells that are growing. This means when those cells awaken, a tumour can grow once more.

The scientists used miniature bowel tumours grown from the cells of mice with cancer to test different drugs. They discoverd that itraconazole blocked signals from a pathway implicated in the growth and spread of many cancers.

“What’s interesting is that this drug seems to kick both dormant and non-dormant cells into action,” added Dr Simon Buczacki. “It forces cells back into a short cycle of growth before slamming on an irreversible ‘stop’ button, entering a permanent standstill that’s known as senescence.”

The researchers aim to set up a clinical trial where they can test its effect on patients with hard to treat advanced bowel cancer. They will also investigate whether this drug could be more effective in combination with other treatments like chemotherapy.

Professor Greg Hannon, director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, said: “This innovative study has taken a step toward addressing one of the biggest challenges in cancer research. Tumours are made up of many different types of cancer cells, which can evolve separately and respond to treatments differently.

“The presence of drug-resistant, dormant tumour cells is a problem in many types of cancer. If we find ways to target these cells in bowel cancer, it might provide insights into tackling the problem of dormant tumour cells more broadly.”

The study was funded by CRUK and published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine today .

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