May 29 (UPI) -- A new class of drugs, known as SHP2 inhibitors, may be effective against a wider range of cancers than previously thought, including treating pancreatic and lung cancer tumors, the Technical University of Munich said Tuesday.
The drugs, which are typically not used on patients with hard-to-treat tumors, are currently being tested on patients with aggressive cancers, TUM said in a statement.
Both pancreatic and lung cancers are collectively classified as KRAS tumors, due to their shared genetic error. The genetic error means that cell proteins, which are involved in cell division, no longer work properly and are always active -- leading to overactive cell division and tumor formation.
Because KRAS proteins also play a crucial role for healthy cells, deactivating the proteins with drugs isn't an option for cancer patients.
Professor Hana Algül, a professor of tumor metabolism and head of gastrointestinal oncology at Medizinische Klinik II at University Hospital rechts der Isar, said his team was searching for different ways to attack KRAS tumors.
"It had previously been thought that the KRAS mutation exerted such severe effects that using other avenues of attack would be doomed to failure," Algül said.
In their new study, however, the researchers show that, contrary to what experts had previously assumed, the regulatory protein SHP2 is a suitable drug target even in KRAS tumors, and that recently developed SHP2 inhibitors are effective against these tumors.
Researchers confirmed their results using a mouse model and samples taken from cancer patients.
In their study with mice, the team said when they additionally removed the SHP2 protein from the mice, they no longer developed tumors. When the mice were given an SHP2 inhibitor, existing tumors grew more slowly and were found to be easier to control.
The new drug could help solve the problem of cancer patients with KRAS tumors developing drug resistance.
"These drugs are effective, but many patients quickly develop resistant cancer cells," said Katrin Ciecielski, a researcher at TUM and co-author of the paper, published Monday in Nature Medicine.
A combination of SHP2 and MEK inhibitors could offer a new approach to targeting drug-resistant tumors.
"We have shown that, both on its own and in combination with other drugs, this new class of drug may one day be able to help cancer patients," Algül said. "This could be life-extending for many patients."