The little girl who inspired the potential new 'cancer-killing pill'

The pill targets a cancerous variant of a protein that has been considered 'undruggable.'

Scientists have created a pill that seems to “annihilate” all solid tumours and leaves healthy cells unaffected – after being inspired by a little girl who died from the disease.

Researchers at City of Hope, one of the US’ largest cancer research and treatment organisations, published a study on Tuesday detailing early test results of “cancer-killing pill” AOH1996.

While the drug’s name may appear to be a random mix of numbers and letters, it actually symbolises a little girl who lost her life to a rare cancer.

Anna Olivia Healey was born in 1996 and died just 10-years-later from Neuroblastoma.

Little Anna Olivia Healey / Credit: A.N.N.A Fund

Since her death her family have been donating money to Linda Malkas, who has spent 20 years developing AOH1996 at the City of Hope hospital in California.

The charity, A.N.N.A. Fund has raised $400,000 (£312,000) for neuroblastoma research and families impacted by the disease.

AOH1996 targets a cancerous variant of proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) – this is a protein that plays a critical role in making tumours expand, the City of Hope said.

Professor Malkas, works at the Californian treatment centre’s department of molecular diagnostics and experimental therapeutics.

Dr Linda Malkas has been developing the drug for 20 years. / Credit: CIty of Hope

She said: “PCNA is like a major airline terminal hub containing multiple plane gates.

“Data suggests PCNA is uniquely altered in cancer cells, and this fact allowed us to design a drug that targeted only the form of PCNA in cancer cells.

“Our cancer-killing pill is like a snowstorm that closes a key airline hub, shutting down all flights in and out only in planes carrying cancer cells.”

The professor called the results “promising” but made clear that research has found AOH1996 can suppress tumour growth in cell and animal models, according to early tests and the first phase of a clinical trial in humans is underway.

Untreated cancer cells can be seen on the left – and cells treated with the new drug are on the right. / Credit: City of Hope

The pill has been shown to be effective in treating cells derived from breast, prostate, brain, ovarian, cervical, skin and lung cancers.

It was tested in more than 70 cancer cell lines and found to selectively kill cancer cells by disrupting the normal cell reproductive cycle, according to the research centre.

PCNA has previously been deemed “undruggable”.

Lead author of the study, Long Gu, said: “No one has ever targeted PCNA as a therapeutic because it was viewed as ‘undruggable,’ but clearly City of Hope was able to develop an investigational medicine for a challenging protein target.”

The study – titled “Small Molecule Targeting of Transcription-Replication Conflict for Selective Chemotherapy” – was published in the Cell Chemical Biology journal.

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