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Leuven researchers identify new pathway to stop rare lymphoma cancer

23 August 2022

Researchers at KU Leuven, UZ Leuven and the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) have found a new way to abort the growth of a rare but highly aggressive type of lymphoma. KU Leuven announced this in a press release on Tuesday. Through the use of medication, they can curb the cooperation between two genes, which is at the root of the development of the cancer.

The type of cancer the scientists were researching is peripheral T-cell lymphoma or PTCL. It is not only a very rare type - there are about ten cases in Belgium every year - but also a particularly aggressive cancer: 75 percent of patients relapse after chemotherapy and the chances of survival after five years are barely 10 to 30 percent. Alternative treatment options are virtually non-existent.

To look for new treatments, the researchers analyzed patients' DNA. In doing so, they discovered a new collaboration between two genes: MYCN and EZH2. It was already known that a strong activity of MYCN can be associated with aggressive tumors, but now it appears that it also causes a strong activity of EZH2. That gene, in turn, enhances the effect of MYCN: thus causing rapid growth and propagation of cancer cells.

"We often see genes in our bodies that enhance each other's effects, but this collaboration is new. When we inactivate one of these two genes in human cancer cells in the lab, we see a rapid decrease in number. From this we conclude that the cells depend on these two genes," says postdoctoral researcher Marlies Vanden Bempt. "Since this cooperation is so important for the growth of this type of cancer cells, it is an interesting target for patient treatment."

The researchers used a molecule that completely degrades EZH2: as a result, the cooperation with MYCN no longer held and the cancer cells died. The new molecule was tested together with an existing drug against PTCL. This drug is currently only used in the United States because of its low efficacy, but by combining the two, each other's effect was enhanced.

The study was conducted in a lab setting on cells, patient samples and in mouse models. "There is still a lot of work ahead to optimize the combination of both molecules for the treatment of PTCL," says researcher Vanden Bempt. "But the first results in the lab already look good."

Source: Knack, translated by Leuven MindGate

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