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Kidney cancer research grant a NZ first

Media Release
Wednesday 16 December 2009
The Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre at The University of Auckland
Kidney cancer research grant a NZ first

University of Auckland chemist Associate Professor Michael Hay has become the first New Zealand scientist to receive a grant from a leading international charity for funding cancer research.

Dr Hay and his team at the University’s Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre will use the ₤137,000 ($NZ 290,000) grant from the UK-based Association for International Cancer Research (AICR) to identify molecular targets in kidney cancer tumours that will help them design more effective anticancer drugs.

This research will expand on Dr Hay and his colleague Dr Jack Flanagan’s recent work designing new drugs for kidney cancer using computers, a project funded by the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery. Both Dr Hay and Dr Flanagan are associate investigators at the centre.

Dr Hay says although not one of the most common cancers, kidney cancers often don’t respond to standard chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and that advanced kidney cancer has an extremely poor prognosis.

“Cancer is caused by changes to either the structure or activity of key genes that control how cells function. In many kidney cancers, a gene called the von Hippel Lindau gene is switched off. Without this gene, a relatively benign tumour can turn into a more aggressive, invasive tumour.”

Dr Hay and colleagues at Stanford University have recently discovered two new classes of molecules that can selectively kill kidney cancer cells that have this particular gene turned off, either by getting the cells to “eat themselves” or by cutting off their food supply. However, the exact interactions between these molecules and their protein targets are not yet known.

“With this grant we’ll use advanced 3D computer modelling techniques to help us identify these targets, and show how potential drugs for treating kidney cancers might interact with their target molecules,” says Dr Hay.

Dr Flanagan says this new method of targeted drug discovery, called “virtual screening”, selects potential drug leads suited to a specific target molecule from millions of compounds. “It’s basically a way to find the needle in the haystack.”

AICR Scientific Advisor Dr Mark Matfield says the charity supports only the very best applications, which it hopes will ultimately lead to powerful new treatments for cancer. “This is the first time we have given a grant to a scientist in New Zealand, and we believe this innovative work could produce significant results.”

The project is supported by the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre and the Maurice Wilkins Centre. It involves collaboration with the Department of Radiation Biology at the Stanford University School of Medicine in the US and is due to begin in April 2010.