Lifesaving new therapies for children with leukaemia

Professor Shudong WangThe research team led by Professor Shudong Wang at UniSA is a world-leader in developing effective and minimally toxic, targeted cancer therapies. They are currently fine-tuning a safer therapy for children with acute leukaemias to improve survival rates and reduce side effects.

"Our approach to creating better cancer therapies is to find and then target the specific genes or proteins that drive cancer cell development and growth," says Professor Wang, Head of the Drug Discovery and Development research group.

"Our new targeted therapies will reduce the side-effects caused by chemotherapies to safeguard the developing minds and bodies of children with leukaemia."

Professor Shudong Wang, an internationally recognised leader in cancer drug discovery and development

"By targeting these specific genes or proteins, our drug molecules are more effective against cancer cells but less toxic to normal tissue. So our therapies are very different to the conventional chemotherapies that kill both cancer and healthy cells."

Acute leukaemia is the most common form of childhood cancer representing a third of malignancies. It is the primary cause of childhood cancer-related mortality.

The more dangerous forms of acute leukaemias share a mutated gene called the mixed lineage leukaemia (MLL) gene. Survival rates are bleak for these patients and highly intensive chemotherapy is often used to try to stop the cancer. Unfortunately, these treatments often leave children with severe side effects that can persist into adulthood.

"We are investigating a specific class of cancer causing proteins called cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs)that drive cancer cell survival and growth.

"We have developed a highly potent and selective CDK inhibitor drug that can effectively block the cancer from continuing to grow and kill the cancer cell with minimal toxicity to healthy cells.

"This provides a very exciting prospect for treatment of childhood leukaemia; especially as the drug compound can be given orally and improve the protection of the vitally important development stages of their young bodies, which current treatments often harm."

Professor Wang's research team is also developing several other new therapeutics that effectively target other types of blood cancers and solid tumours of the breast, prostate and ovary.