University of Sheffield

Discovery of new cancer treatment

A pioneering therapy, first discovered at the University of Sheffield, is helping to treat cancer patients across the world.

In 2005, Professor Thomas Helleday from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Oncology and Metabolism and his team discovered a new concept of using PARP inhibitors to treat cancer in patients with a specific DNA repair defect, seen in hereditary ovarian and breast cancer.

Professor Helleday’s ground-breaking research was the basis for an entirely new concept for targeting cancer - the synthetic lethal approach - which exploits a cancers vulnerability rather than the mutated gene, which was previously targeted by existing treatments.

In this case, cancer cells defective in homologous recombination become reliant on the PARP enzyme while normal cells do not need it. This method means the cancer is killed and the adverse effects for patients are limited.
The PARP inhibitor treatment concept is life saving for patients carrying recombination defective cancers, such as those mutated in BRCA1 or BRCA2.

This discovery was patent protected and licensed to a pharmaceutical company and, following successful clinical trials, there are currently four PARP inhibitor drugs approved in the US and EU to treat breast or ovarian cancer using this novel concept, developed in Sheffield.

Numerous novel PARP inhibitor trials are currently being carried out in a wide range of other cancers, including pancreatic cancer, which currently has a survival rate of less than one per cent for people living 10 years or more after diagnosis in England and Wales.

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