Image of Dr Elizabeth Coker
Dr Elizabeth Coker

Jesus academic finds new drug combinations for resistant cancers

Research by Dr Elizabeth Coker has highlighted multiple drug combinations that could be effective therapies for some types of hard-to-treat cancers.

The analysis by College Postdoctoral Associate, Dr Coker, and a team from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, tested combinations of cancer drugs that are already used to treat patients. The researchers then created the world’s largest resource that shows possible effective combinations for further study.

Their paper published in Nature, also linked biomarkers that could be used to identify patients that would benefit from the newly highlighted combinations to ensure that they are used in the most effective way.

This freely available resource starts to define how combinations of cancer drugs in specific molecular backgrounds work together, with the aims of avoiding resistance, minimising toxic side effects, and finding new treatments for some of the hardest to treat cancers.

The researchers hope that other scientists can use this resource to aid the future clinical development of combination therapies. 

Combinations of drugs are used to treat a variety of different diseases, including HIV and some types of cancer. There are hundreds of thousands of possible drug combinations and we don’t know which ones will be effective. Testing all of these in patients is neither ethical nor practical until there is more evidence identifying either their effectiveness, or the patient groups that would benefit the most. In addition to this, our ability to predict effective drug combinations in different tissue types and molecular backgrounds of cancer is limited.

Dr Coker and the team focused on analysing already clinically relevant drugs. By using systematic testing of drug combinations combined with analysis of genetic information and multi-omics techniques on cell lines, researchers have created a new resource to predict effective treatment combinations. They can also use the molecular information to identify biomarkers that could pinpoint patient groups that would benefit from the treatment combinations.

To demonstrate that their analysis is effective in a real world application, the researchers verified a drug combination in mice using colon cancer cells with a specific double mutation. This combined a drug already used for colon cancer with another one that is in clinical development. The combination halted tumour growth in mice, showing the benefit of combining drugs that are in clinical development with existing chemotherapies.

Dr Elizabeth Coker, a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, now based at Healx, said: “This open resource uses in-depth genetic analysis to help understand which drugs work best together and to identify patients who could benefit the most. In addition to the combinations that we discovered, this research uses the largest number of cells lines to date in this type of study, enabling future studies to uncover more possible combinations.”

Dr Mathew Garnett, senior author and Group Leader at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Resistance to cancer treatments is a huge problem that costs lives, and therefore having other effective therapies available for when the cancer does not respond is vital. This freely available resource has the ability to empower precision oncology and starts to write the rule book for combining different drugs to overcome resistance, limit toxicity of pre-existing drugs, and expand the range of options for patients with breast, colon or pancreatic cancer. We hope that this will be used by scientists all over the world to investigate previously unexplored combinations of drugs, leading to new options for those who need it.”