Blocking Hedgehog, a signaling pathway, could offer new hope to small cell lung cancer (SCLC) patients.
The cancer usually responds well to chemotherapy, but regrows and is then less responsive to the treatment.
But now an international study shows that the regrowth of SCLC cells could be blocked by a drug that targets growth signals which, in healthy cells, control organ development and repair.
The study was conducted by an international team of researchers from Monash, Stanford and John Hopkins universities.
Professor Neil Watkins, of the Monash Institute of Medical Research (MIMR) led the Monash research team of Dr Luciano Martelotto, MIMR, and Associate Professor Tracey Brown of the Department of Biochemisty and Molecular Biology.
Professor Watkins said while many current cancer treatments and trials focus on shrinking existing
tumours, this research had a different focus.
"Some aggressive types of cancer respond very well to chemotherapy, but then the real challenge is to stop the tumour coming back. That's what we investigated.
"This discovery gives us important clues for designing new treatment approaches. By using drugs to inhibit the Hedgehog signalling, we should be able to increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and reduce the risk of cancer relapse," said Professor Watkins.
The latest study will feed into and change the focus of trials already being conducted at the Monash Medical Centre.
Dr Vinod Ganju, a medical oncologist at the Monash Cancer Centre, said conventional trials, focusing on tumour shrinkage, would not be useful in realising the potential of blocking the Hedgehog pathway.
"Based on this research, we need to change our approach. We will re-design our clinical trials to test how these new therapies can improve patient outcomes following chemotherapy," said Dr Ganju.
"Our relationship with MIMR means we can make this happen relatively quickly and take immediate advantage of this research breakthrough."
The study, supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Victorian Cancer Agency, was published today in the prestigious journal, Nature Medicine.