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A new class of drug slows growth of castration-resistant prostate cancer cells

February 01, 2016

A first-in-class sphingosine kinase 2 inhibitor slowed the growth of castration-resistant prostate cancer cells, in part by inhibiting the enzyme dihydroceramide desaturase (DEGS), but did not kill them, according to the results of preclinical in vitro and in vivo studies published in the December 2015 issue of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) and others.

Christina Voelkel-Johnson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at MUSC, led the study, which was funded by a pilot grant from MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Co-authors include Charles D. Smith, Ph.D., who developed the compound and led an earlier phase 1 trial at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center; MUSC Health oncologist Michael Lilly, M.D., a prostate cancer specialist; and Richard Drake, Ph.D., director of the Proteomics Core at MUSC, who has developed techniques to use MALDI imaging mass spectrometry to measure sphingolipid levels.

Sphingosine kinase inhibitors are a new category of drugs that reduce the generation of sphingosine-1-phosphate. This lipid signaling molecule promotes cancer cell growth and survival, thereby supporting the development of resistance to chemotherapy and radiation by cancer cells.

The study reported in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics showed that the compound YELIVA™ (ABC294640; RedHill Biopharma Ltd.; Tel Aviv, Israel) slowed prostate cancer cell proliferation by inhibiting sphingosine kinase 2, but also that it did something unexpected. "By inhibiting a second sphingolipid enzyme (DEGS), the compound increases levels of another class of lipids -- dihydroceramides -- which may contribute to the growth suppressive effects of the drug," says Voelkel-Johnson.

This study is the first to show activity for this compound against DEGS and to potentially link inhibition of DEGS to slowing the growth of castration-resistant prostate cancer cells. Treatment with YELIVA™ (ABC294640) increased dihydroceramide levels even in the absence of sphingosine kinase 2.

The MUSC team conducted both in vitro and in vivo studies with YELIVA™ (ABC294640) in castration-resistant prostate cancer, relying on the MUSC Lipidomics Shared Resource for measurement of sphingolipid levels and the MUSC Proteomics Center for MALDI imaging mass spectrometry.

In vitro studies conducted with castration-resistant mouse prostate cancer cells (TRAMP-C2) showed that treatment with YELIVA™ (ABC294640) reduced expression of the androgen receptor and the oncogene c-Myc, both important therapeutic targets for prostate cancer. Although many existing prostate cancer therapies target the androgen receptor, none directly target c-Myc.

To test in vivo response, one million TRAMP-C2 cells were injected under the skin of mice with an intact immune system, which were then treated with YELIVA™ (ABC294640) three days later. MALDI imaging mass spectrometry showed the presence of YELIVA™ (ABC294640) within murine tumors and confirmed in vitro findings of increased dihydroceramide levels.

"The significance of these findings is that this compound might be a novel therapeutic for advanced prostate cancer," says Voelkel-Johnson, who believes that combination regimens of YELIVA™ (ABC294640) and focal radiation in this difficult-to-treat patient population deserve further study.


About MUSC

Founded in 1824 in Charleston, The Medical University of South Carolina is the oldest medical school in the South. Today, MUSC continues the tradition of excellence in education, research, and patient care. MUSC educates and trains more than 3,000 students and residents, and has nearly 13,000 employees, including approximately 1,500 faculty members. As the largest non-federal employer in Charleston, the university and its affiliates have collective annual budgets in excess of $2.2 billion. MUSC operates a 750-bed medical center, which includes a nationally recognized Children's Hospital, the Ashley River Tower (cardiovascular, digestive disease, and surgical oncology), Hollings Cancer Center (a National Cancer Institute designated center) Level I Trauma Center, and Institute of Psychiatry. For more information on academic information or clinical services, visit For more information on hospital patient services, visit

About YELIVA™ (ABC294640)

YELIVA™ (ABC294640), developed by RedHill Biopharma Ltd., is a proprietary, first-in-class, orally-administered, sphingosine kinase-2 (SK2) selective inhibitor with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory activities, targeting multiple oncology, inflammatory and gastrointestinal indications. By inhibiting the SK2 enzyme, YELIVA™ (ABC294640) blocks the synthesis of sphingosine 1-phosphate (S1P), a lipid signaling molecule that promotes cancer growth and pathological inflammation. YELIVA™ (ABC294640) was originally developed by U.S.-based Apogee Biotechnology Corp. and completed multiple successful pre-clinical studies in oncology, inflammation, GI, and radioprotection models, as well as the ABC-101 Phase Ib clinical study in cancer patients with advanced solid tumors. A Phase I/II clinical study evaluating YELIVA™ (ABC294640) in patients with refractory/relapsed diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) has been initiated in the U.S. A Phase II study with YELIVA™ for the treatment of refractory or relapsed multiple myeloma is planned to be initiated by early 2016 at Duke University. A third Phase II clinical study is planned to evaluate YELIVA™ (ABC294640) as a radioprotectant to prevent mucositis in cancer patients undergoing therapeutic radiotherapy. For more information visit:

Medical University of South Carolina

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