Sussex University (UK): Working towards revolutionising cancer treatment

Simon Ward

Scientists at the University of Sussex are working with our Open Innovation group in a four-year multi-target collaboration to discover a portfolio of new cancer drugs which target the DNA response system in cells in order to kill cancer cells. 

The £6 million project, funded by the Welcome Trust brings together Sussex scientists’ deep understanding of the ways cells respond to DNA damage with our cutting edge techniques of modern drug discovery to generate a powerful new approach to treating cancer. The AstraZeneca and Sussex teams work seamlessly together to deliver probe molecules against five biological targets.

DNA in healthy cells is damaged thousands of times every day, but the impact is reduced by the DNA damage response (DDR) system - a network of cellular pathways that identify and repair the damage. However many cancers are known to have defects within these pathways, which enable cancerous cells and tumours to grow and divide.

The University of Sussex aims to harness its detailed understanding of DDR to discover drugs which can maximise DNA damage, or prevent its repair. AstraZeneca will have the first option to develop any compounds that may be discovered. The hope is that treating patients with these drugs may cause the cancer cells to accumulate an unsustainable amount of DNA damage, triggering them to die.

Healthy cells have an intact DDR system and are not affected by these compounds, suggesting that these drugs would have lower toxicity and possibly fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapies. The newly discovered compounds may also have potential to increase the effectiveness of chemo and radiotherapy, which work by causing high levels of DNA damage.

Simon Ward, who leads the Drug Discovery Centre at the University of Sussex, said: “Having worked for many years in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, I am keenly aware of the need for better integration across the academic, clinical and industry sectors to help deliver innovation in drug discovery.  My experience of working with the scientists at AstraZeneca has been excellent, both in terms of their genuine desire to contribute to driving projects forward and their clear and open communication and intent.   Research projects of this nature are high risk and require major investment. By harnessing the scientific skills from a range of institutions, we may be able to bring revolutionary new treatments to patients more quickly and efficiently.”