SINGAPORE, June 17 (Xinhua) -- Researchers in Singapore have discovered a potential new treatment that may bring some hope for cancer patients with a highly aggressive form of lymphoma, local media reported on Sunday.
Even better news: The compound involved is already being tested on a different illness - to treat rheumatoid arthritis. It has been screened for safety, and so the trial process for the patients suffering from the cancer in question - NK/T-cell lymphoma - can be cut short.
"We are now planning to start clinical trials for patients," Professor Teh Bin Tean from the National Cancer Center Singapore ( NCCS) was quoted by The Straits Times as saying.
"In a best-case scenario, the drug could be available for treatment within five years," he said.
Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the immune system. It is the fifth and sixth most common cancer here for men and women respectively, with the NCCS seeing more than 300 cases a year.
NK/T-cell lymphoma, which is rare among Caucasians, is more prevalent in Asian populations.
Teh, who is director and principal investigator at the NCCS- Vari (Van Andel Research Institute) Translational Research Laboratory in the center, hopes to start such a trial with around 25 patients in a year or two.
"I am hopeful that we might have found a molecular target for the treatment of at least some patients with this otherwise-fatal disease," he added.
His interest in the disease began when a close colleague, a South Korean in his 40s, died within six months of being diagnosed with the cancer.
In 2010, a team of more than 20 local doctors and researchers with expertise in cancer, genomics, pathology and bioinformatics came together to study it.
A member of the group, Associate Professor Tan Soo Yong, who is a senior consultant at the Singapore General Hospital's Pathology Department and director of the SingHealth Tissue Repository, said: "We could not have done it without the collaboration of experts from different fields. Research nowadays can't be done by individuals in a particular specialty."
The group sequenced all the genes in several patients' NK/T- cell lymphoma cells, and compared them with samples from more than 60 patients.
They identified mutations in the Janus kinase 3 (JAK3) gene that seemed to have a major role in driving the cancer in a significant number of patients.
"We call it gene addiction because the cancer cells are relying on the mutation for their survival," explained Teh.
A drug that targets the mutant protein has already been shown to cause such lymphoma cell lines to "commit suicide" in the laboratory.
Last Friday, the team's work was published in Cancer Discovery, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.