A single antibody called herceptin can interfere with a malignant tumour's ability to maintain the blood vessels it needs to survive. It could provide a simple alternative to combinations of antitumour drugs, according to a Brief Communiction in this week's Nature (Vol. 416, No. 6878, 21 Mar 2002).
Tumours secrete chemicals called angiogenesis factors that trick the body into re-routing blood vessels into them to deliver essential supplies. Drugs that block different angiogenesis factors are available, but tumours quickly become resistant to them as there are a host of other factors they can use instead. As a result there is an urgent need for mixed cocktails of anti-angiogenesis drugs.
Herceptin is already used to treat some breast cancers. It blocks a receptor crucial to the survival of about 30% of these tumours. Rakesh Jain and colleagues at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, found that in doing so, herceptin also reduces production of angiogenic factors and stimulates the release of natural anti-angiogenic factors.
Breast cancer tumours in mice treated with herceptin had blood supply networks that resembled normal tissue and grew far more slowly than normal tumours as a result. The authors suggest that herceptin, or drugs like it, could eventually be used instead of complicated anti-angiogenic drug cocktails for treating breast cancers.
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