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Scientists discover how cells overpower cancer drug

September 15, 2015

CANCER RESEARCH UK scientists have found how cells adapt to overcome cancer drugs designed to interfere with their genetic controls, according to a study* published today (Wednesday) in Epigenetics and Chromatin.

Normally molecular 'tags' are attached to DNA which send signals to the cell, telling it how to package its DNA and switch genes on or off.

Drugs called HDAC inhibitors cause a build-up of certain types of tags, leading to potentially damaging changes in gene activity that can kill cancer cells.

But while HDAC inhibitors can successfully treat certain types of cancer, such as lymphoma, other types survive this disruption.

Scientists from the University of Birmingham, suggest that they do this by activating an in-built 'survival' response to HDAC inhibitors which rebalances the tags, maintaining normal gene activity and keeping the cells alive.

These findings could help identify which patients are suitable for treatment with these drugs. And could help develop future therapies that override the survival mechanism in tumour types that don't respond.

Lead author Dr John Halsall, Cancer Research UK scientist from the University of Birmingham, said: "Our work has shown that some cancer cells can survive the gene damage caused by HDAC inhibitor drugs, so we've unveiled a new layer of the cancer cell's defence that we need to target to destroy tumours.

"If we work out exactly which types of cancer are vulnerable to these drugs we can use them in a smarter way to treat patients more effectively."

Dr Kat Arney, Cancer Research UK's science information manager, said: "Working out how genes are switched on and off in cancer is vital if we're to truly understand and beat the disease. This study could help us tailor how we use HDAC inhibitors so that more patients could benefit from them, and we'll continue to work towards finding more effective ways to target cancer's control mechanisms in the future."
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For media enquiries contact Emily Head in the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 6189 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.

Notes to editor:


Halsall et al. Cells adapt to the epigenomic disruption caused by histone deacetylase inhibitors through a coordinated, chromatin mediated transcriptional response. Epigenetics and Chromatin. DOI: 10.1186/s13072-015-0021-9

About Cancer Research UK
  • Cancer Research UK is the world's leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research.
  • Cancer Research UK's pioneering work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives.
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  • Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival rates in the UK double in the last forty years.
  • Today, 2 in 4 people survive cancer. Cancer Research UK's ambition is to accelerate progress so that 3 in 4 people will survive cancer within the next 20 years.
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