U of M researchers develop new drug that destroys pancreatic cancer cells in mice

U of M professor Ashok Saluja and his team developed a drug that destroys tumor cells in mice.
U of M professor Ashok Saluja and his team developed a drug that destroys tumor cells in mice.
Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota.

University of Minnesota researchers have developed a drug that wipes out pancreatic tumors in mice, and, if all goes as planned, it will be tested on humans very soon.

The drug, called Minnelide, contains a plant known as "thunder god vine" used in traditional Chinese medicine as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. The name Minnelide is a tribute to  Minnesota and "triptolide," the compound derived from the plant.

In 2007, lead researcher Ashok Saluja and his team discovered that pancreatic cancer cells contain too much HSP 70, a protein that protects cells from dying. Because of the excess protein, pancreatic cancer cells are difficult to target with drugs. The researchers needed to find a way to inhibit HSP 70 in the tumor cells.

"This drug stops the making of this protein," Saluja said. "The cancer cells start dying."

Minnelide compromises the rest of the immune system much like chemotherapy, according to Saluja. But it also works quickly. The mice treated with the drug showed no signs of tumors after 40 days.

The researchers tested the drug on several different models of pancreatic cancer in the mice, and it was effective in each case.

"Obviously, the eventual test is what happens in humans, but we're very hopeful," Saluja said.

Pancreatic cancer is the most lethal of all cancers. More than 44,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year, and the average survival time following diagnosis is a mere 6 months.

"The diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is probably one of the worst things that could happen -- it's one of the most lethal things we know," Saluja said. "So this is very important."

The researchers are waiting for FDA approval and hope to begin the human trial in 6 months. Saluja expects the trial to last 2 to 3 years.

The drug is also being tested in as-yet-unpublished research on ovarian cancer and colon cancer, Saluja says, and, so far, has been very effective.

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