Discovery Blocks Cancer Drug's Toxic Side Effect

CHAPEL HILL, NC - A debilitating side effect of a widely used but harshly potent treatment for colon cancer could be eliminated if a promising new laboratory discovery bears fruit.

The pre-clinical finding, published in the Nov. 5, 2010, issue of the journal Science, relates to the drug CPT-11, or Irinotecan, a chemotherapeutic agent used against colon cancer and other solid malignancies. It is believed to be the first successful targeting of an enzyme in symbiotic bacteria found in the digestive system.

While it has proven a valuable tool for attacking tumors, CPT-11 can also cause severe diarrhea, which limits the dosage that patients can tolerate, curbing the drug’s potential effectiveness.

Now, a team of researchers led by Matthew R. Redinbo, PhD, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has discovered it is possible to target and block the enzyme, beta glucuronidase, which is thought to play a major role in the gastric side effects.

First, the scientists had to overcome a major hurdle: the culprit enzymes are found in microbes in the gut that play a major role in human health, so eliminating the anticancer drug’s toxicity without making things worse for patients was a real challenge, Redinbo said.

“We need to retain our intestinal bacteria – they help us digest food, make critical vitamins and protect us from infection,” said Redinbo, professor and chair of the chemistry department in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “This targeted approach stops the one bacterial protein thought to cause the drug’s devastating side effect, but without damaging the beneficial microbes or the intestines.”

Instead of changing the makeup of the drug itself, Redinbo decided to take a new tack. Working with researchers at North Carolina Central University in Durham and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the UNC team looked for chemical compounds that would latch on to and block the action of the beta glucuronidase enzymes. From a database of more than 10,000 compounds, they narrowed the field to four prime candidates, then tested them in the laboratory on several types of bacterial cells.

The result: all four compounds worked – the enzymes remained dormant and the cells were unscathed. Scientists also tested one of the inhibitors in mice. Again, it proved successful – animals treated with CPT-11 that also received the compound had significantly less diarrhea than those that only received the cancer drug.

“With further development, this approach could improve anticancer drug efficacy and tolerance,” Redinbo said. “In general, though, this also shows that specific bacterial proteins can be selectively targeted without killing these health-promoting microbial symbiotes.”

Study co-author, Sridhar Mani, MD, professor of medicine and genetics at Einstein, said the severe diarrhea caused by CPT-11 can sharply limit the dosage that cancer patients can receive. “Our tests showed conclusively that the inhibitor identified by our UNC colleagues prevented diarrhea in mice that were also receiving CPT-11. We’re hopeful that clinical trials will show that administering this inhibitor when patients start taking CPT-11 allows for improvement in the drug’s anti-tumor effect in patients with cancer.”

Dr. Richard Goldberg, UNC Lineberger associate director and physician in chief of the N.C. Cancer Hospital, said, “The research that Dr. Redinbo and his colleagues conducted to identify this compound and test it in a pre-clinical model is very promising, and this agent should be considered for human testing. The clinical problem is common enough that this could make a real difference to the care of many patients." Goldberg is an international expert in colon cancer and previously chaired the Gastrointestinal Cancer Committee for the national clinical trials cooperative group Cancer and Leukemia Group B.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Golden Leaf Foundation and the State of North Carolina.

Other study co-authors were graduate students Bret D. Wallace and Jillian Orans, and postdoctoral fellow Kimberly T. Lane, PhD, all from the UNC chemistry department; Ja Seol Koo, MD, and Christian Jobin, PhD, from the medicine department in the UNC School of Medicine; Hongwei Wang, PhD and Madhukumar Venkatesh, PhD, from the departments of medicine, oncology and genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; and John E. Scott, PhD, and Li-An Yeh, PhD, with the Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise program at N.C. Central University.

Watch a video interview with Redinbo and Wallace An icon indicating that content may be viewed on YouTube (TM)..

Listen to an interview with Redinbo and Wallace on NPR's "The Story."Icon indicating that a link will open an external site.

Read more about their unique personal connection to the research.

Media note: Redinbo can be reached at (919) 843-8910 or by email An icon indicating that a link will launch an email program. . Wallace can be reached by email An icon indicating that a link will launch an email program..

UNC News Services contact:
Patric Lane An icon indicating that a link will launch an email program. or (919) 962-8596


Albert Einstein contact:
Kimberly Newman An icon indicating that a link will launch an email program. or (718) 430-3101