Scientists create “drug-like” chemical that may inhibit pancreatic cancer stem cells

John R. Cashman, Ph.D.

Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death this past week after battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer is a grim reminder of how aggressive the disease can be. In fact, pancreatic cancer will soon be the second leading cause of cancer-related death for individuals in the United States. Unfortunately, it is known to be highly resistant to treatments that are currently available.

With the aid of CIRM-funding, John R. Cashman, Ph.D., along with a team of researchers at the Human BioMolecular Research Institute and ChemRegen, Inc. have developed a “drug-like” chemical that may change that. The newly created compound, PAWI-2, was tested on pancreatic cancer stem cells in a laboratory setting. The compound works by activating apoptosis, a process that tells the cells when to stop dividing and influences cell death.

Under the microscope, the team of researchers found that PAWI-2 successfully inhibited the growth of these cancer stem cells. In addition to this, the team analyzed if PAWI-2 had any effect on existing pancreatic cancer treatments, specifically erlotinib and trametinib. What they found was that their “drug-like” chemical improved the effectiveness of both of these anti-cancer drugs.

In a press release, Dr. Cashman explained the significance that PAWI-2 could play for pancreatic cancer treatments.

“We need to develop effective new medications for drug resistant pancreatic cancer. Using a non-toxic small molecule like PAWI-2 to stop pancreatic cancer either by itself or in combination with standard of care chemotherapy is very appealing.”

The full paper, published in Investigational New Drugs, can be accessed here.

Precision guided therapy from a patient’s own cells

Dr. Wesley McKeithan, Stanford

Imagine having a tool you could use to quickly test lots of different drugs against a disease to see which one works best. That’s been a goal of stem cell researchers for many years but turning that idea into a reality hasn’t been easy. That may be about to change.

A team of CIRM-funded researchers at the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the Human BioMolecular Research Institute in San Diego found a way to use stem cells from patients with a life-threatening heart disease, to refine an existing therapy to make it more effective, with fewer side effects.

The disease in question is called long QT syndrome (LQTS). This is a heart rhythm condition that can cause fast, chaotic heartbeats. Some people with the condition have seizures. In some severe cases, particularly in younger people, LQTS can cause sudden death.

There are a number of medications that can help keep LQTS under control. One of these is mexiletine. It’s effective at stabilizing the heart’s rhythm, but it also comes with some side effects such as stomach pain, chest discomfort, drowsiness, headache, and nausea.

The team wanted to find a way to test different forms of that medication to see if they could find one that worked better and was safer to take. So they used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with LQTS to do just that.

iPSCs are cells that are made from human tissue – usually skin – that can then be turned into any other cell in the body. In this case, they took tissue from people with LQTS and then turned them into heart cells called cardiomyocytes, the kind affected by the disease. The beauty of this technique is that even though these cells came from another source, they now look and act like cardiomyocytes affected by LQTS.

Dr. Mark Mercola, Stanford

In a news release Stanford’s Dr. Mark Mercola, the senior author of the study, said using these kinds of cells gave them a powerful tool.

“Drugs for heart disease are typically developed using overly simplified models, like tumor cells engineered in a specific way to mimic a biochemical event. Consequently, drugs like this one, mexiletine, have undesirable properties of concern in treating patients. Here, we used cells from a patient to generate that person’s heart muscle cells in a dish so we could visualize both the good and bad effects of the drug.”

The researchers then used these man-made cardiomyocytes to test various drugs that were very similar in structure to mexiletine. They were looking for ones that could help stabilize the heart arrhythmia but didn’t produce the unpleasant side effects. And they found some promising candidates.

Study first author, Dr. Wesley McKeithan, says the bigger impact of the study is that they were able to show how this kind of cell from patients with a particular disease can be used to “guide drug development and identify better drug improvement and optimization in a large-scale manner.”

 “Our approach shows the feasibility of introducing human disease models early in the drug development pipeline and opens the door for precision drug design to improve therapies for patients.”

The study is published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Blocking pancreatic cancer stem cells

John Cashman

Cancer stem cells are one of the main reasons why cancers are able to survive surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. They are able to hide from those therapies and, at a future date, emerge and spread the cancer in the body once again.

Jionglia Cheng, PhD.

Jionglia Cheng, PhD., the lead author of a new CIRM-funded study, says that’s one of the reasons why pancreatic cancer has proved so difficult to treat.

“Pancreatic cancer remains a major health problem in the United States and soon will be the second most common cause of mortality due to cancer. A majority of pancreatic cancer patients are often resistant to clinical therapies. Thus, it remains a challenge to develop an efficacious clinically useful pancreatic cancer therapy.”

Dr. Cheng, a researcher with ChemRegen Inc., teamed up with John Cashman at the Human BioMolecular Research Institute and identified a compound, that seems to be effective in blocking the cancer stem cells.

In earlier studies the compound, called PAWI-2, demonstrated effectiveness in blocking breast, prostate and colon cancer. When tested in the laboratory PAWI-2 showed it was able to kill pancreatic cancer stem cells, and also was effective in targeting drug-resistant pancreatic cancer stem cells.

In addition, when PAWI-2 was used with a drug called erlotinib (brand name Tarceva) which is commonly prescribed for pancreatic cancer, the combination proved more effective against the cancer stem cells than erlotinib alone.

In a news release Dr. Cheng said: “In the future, this molecule could be used alone or with other chemotherapy albeit at lower doses, as a new therapeutic drug to combat pancreatic cancer. This may lead to much less toxicity to the patient,”

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.