Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Melanoma Starved

Several cancers could be starved of nutrients by drugs that block cellular protein pumps.

Last year researchers at Sydney’s Centenary Institute and the University of Sydney showed they could starve prostate cancer. Now a further discovery opens up the prospect of a new class of drugs that could work across a range of cancers, including melanoma.

Unlike normal cells, melanoma and other cancer cells rely on the amino acid glutamine instead of glucose for the energy required to divide and grow. Thus, in order to fuel their rapid growth, cancer cells need to pump glutamine into their cells.

New research published in the International Journal of Cancer has found that not only do melanoma cells have more glutamine pumps on their surface, but that blocking these pumps stops their growth.

“We’ve shown that if we starve melanoma of these essential nutrients, we can stop the cancer from growing,” says Dr Jeff Holst, who heads the Centenary Institute’s Origins of Cancer Research Group. “This involves blocking the protein pumps that move glutamine into tumour cells, which successfully slowed the growth of the tumours in cell cultures.”

Although often curable if detected early, melanoma is one of the most difficult cancers to treat once it has spread because it rapidly develops resistance to known therapies. “But a drug that specifically targets and inhibits the glutamine pump will give us a new and different approach from current treatments,” Holst says.

“We first demonstrated this nutrient-pumping mechanism in prostate cancers, and it now looks like it occurs in a broad range of cancers, particularly solid cancers such as melanoma. This opens the possibility of designing therapies that can be used to block nutrient pumps across multiple cancers.”

Holst hopes that such a compound can be developed and tested within 5–10 years.