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Duke Researchers Part Of Front-Line Battle Against Cancer

Posted June 2, 2005

— Duke University researchers recently discovered a potential new compound that may block the growth of a third of all cancers. It could be the first step in developing a new class of anti-cancer drugs. The work still faces years of clinical testing, but it is a sign of things to come.

The culprit behind many cancers is a gene called RAS. A protein enzyme called ICMT can turn RAS on in cells, causing uncontrolled cell growth or cancer, but what if a compound could block the enzyme? Duke pharmacologist Patrick Casey and his colleagues believe they found just that.

"By use of [a] robot and screening capability, we were able to identify small molecule inhibitors and show, in fact, we could block the growth of cancer cells," Casey said.

The drug compound is called cymethynil. It still faces years of clinical trials, but it is the kind of discovery once limited to big drug companies. Now, academic facilities like Duke University are getting in on the act.

Robot technology makes it possible to screen tens of thousands of small molecules from a library of compounds.

"To try and identify the ones that will improve the process of what you want to test," Casey said.

To perform this kind of work 10 years ago would require 20 people. Now, the robot does it more accurately and stores the data more precisely.

"If you had 20 people doing it, they would all do it differently and wouldn't always match up. The robot does it exactly the same way every time," Casey said.

Casey said screening facilities like his have a good relationship with the big pharmaceutical companies. His academic lab can do the detailed groundwork for developing new cancer fighting compounds. Once they find something that works, the drug company can take it from there with less risk of financial loss.

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