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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 March, 2004, 01:23 GMT
Combination therapy hits cancer
Two drugs may be better than one
Scientists have used an HIV-style combination of drugs to shrink cancer tumours resistant to standard treatment in lab tests.

They believe it could herald a new approach, using combination therapy highly tailored for maximum effect against individual tumours.

The strategy was used in experiments on mice with a type of lymphoma.

The research, by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, is published in the journal Nature.

We should not assume that one person's cancer will respond in the same way to drugs as another's
Professor Lawrence Young

Treatment with either of two standard chemotherapy drugs, rapamycin or doxorubicin had little impact on mice with B-cell lymphoma.

But every animal given a combination of the two drugs went into complete remission.

Cancer occurs when cells fail to commit suicide at the end of their normal lifespan and instead continue dividing.

Most traditional chemotherapy agents work by triggering cells to commit suicide.

However, sometimes cells fail to respond because they simply do not have the right apparatus to commit suicide in place and the tumour remains resistant to treatment.

Double whammy

The new approach is based on the theory that one drug can be used to restore the ability of cells to commit suicide and the second can actually trigger the process.

In certain types of lymphoma programmed cell death is disrupted by over-activity of a protein called Akt.

Rapamycin restores the mechanism by blocking the action of this protein.

The researchers chose to combine it with doxorubicin, which is able to trigger the actual death of cells by damaging their DNA.

In tandem, the two drugs were able to deliver a decisive, knockout blow to the lymphoma cells, which were seen to die in huge numbers in the experimental mice.

They also appeared to be relatively free of side effects.

Professor Lawrence Young, of Cancer Research UK's Institute for Cancer Studies in Birmingham, told BBC News Online that combinations of drugs were already regularly used in cancer treatment.

However, he said they tended to be used on a trial and error basis. The new approach seemed much better targeted to attack specific properties of a tumour and heralded the prospect of bespoke therapy being tailored to an individual's particular form of disease.

"We should not assume that one person's cancer will respond in the same way to drugs as another's," he said.

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