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By focusing on the molecules that control a gene’s on-off switch and sharing their findings, scientists like Dr. Cheryl Arrowsmith are accelerating the pace of drug discovery

LLSC grant recipient Dr. Cheryl Arrowsmith is on the leading edge of cancer research and is an internationally recognized expert in cancer related structural biology, chemical biology and epigenetics.THOMAS BOLLMANN

The key to stopping cancer in its tracks may lie with epigenetics, the newest frontier of drug discovery. Epigenetics is a mechanism that controls which genes are turned on and turned off in cells. Almost every cell in our body contains the same DNA sequences, but our cells do not look or behave alike. Heart cells look and act very differently than those with lung cells, even though both contain the same DNA. The reason for the variety of activities seen in different cells is explained by epigenetics.

Because epigenetics involves the study of cells and genes and what can go wrong within a cell, it’s central to the understanding of cancers, explains Dr. Cheryl Arrowsmith, a Canadian structural biologist and chief scientist at the Toronto laboratory of the Structural Genomics Consortium. Most cancer cells exhibit changes in the proteins that regulate these genes. Some of the very first examples of defective proteins were found in lymphoma, a group of cancers that develop in the lymphatic system, which is responsible for fighting off infections.

The study of epigenetics, because it deals with the factors that regulate gene behaviour, gets to the root of what causes diseases in a fundamentally different way than other types of research, she notes. It has therefore led to some encouraging developments.

There’s a whole new generation of new epigenetic drugs being tested in early clinical trials right now.

Dr. Cheryl Arrowsmith, a Canadian structural biologist

Dr. Arrowsmith says that over the past 10 years, a host of researchers and drug companies around the world have been trying to develop drugs or drug-like molecules to modulate the proteins that turn specific genes on and off in the hope that these drugs can be used to treat a range of diseases, including cancer. “The bottom line is that it’s a promising area of research and drug development, especially for blood cancer.

Her innovative work and dedication to science is evident in her commitment to the Structural Genomics Consortium, a non profit, which makes its research available to scientists and drug companies alike to encourage collaboration on treatments and potentially cures for cancer and other diseases. “In our consortium, we have a collection of about 50 drug-like molecules that we make available to the entire research community to use and to test any therapeutic hypotheses where there’s an epigenetic defect,” she says.

It’s a novel approach in science, Dr. Arrowsmith points out. “The tendency is to patent and protect scientific discoveries and develop drugs in secret, not because people are greedy but because the traditional concept is that the only way you can make a drug is to do it through a company and get investor funding. But that approach really slows down science and we want to encourage scientific discoveries.”

“The work is still very hard and very complex, but the speed at which we learn and can test new therapeutic hypotheses is getting faster and faster with newer technology. It really is a wonderful time in science.”

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