Recent research by UCSB scientists on an anti-cancer drug has yielded a discovery that could benefit breast cancer patients.

Working together with scientists in the pharmaceutical industry, researchers experimented with maytansine — a substance that attacks nonmalignant and malignant cells — to isolate the drug’s cancer-fighting properties. After adding an antibody to maytansine that caused it to only target cancer cells, subsequent studies found that the drug reduced tumor size in one-third of patients. Authorities say the pharmaceutical may be available on the market by 2013 if it clears additional testing stages. Additional clinical trials are being performed that include therapies for lung and ovarian cancer.

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Maytansine, an antibody substance found in trees, exhibits the potential for fighting cancerous cells.

According to a press release, the scientists found that the altered maytansine — which happens to be derived from evergreen trees — works to target cancer cells’ microtubules, the protein filaments that help cells to divide and multiply.

Principal investigator for the experiment Mary Ann Jordan, a professor in UCSB’s Dept. of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB), said the results come at a time when many feel the battle with cancer is a hopeless one.

“Sometimes people say that there is no progress in the fight against cancer,” Jordan said in a press release. “But there is progress on many fronts.”

Emin Oroudjev, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the study, said targeting microtubules prevents cancer cells from multiplying and keeps the cancer from growing.

“When microtubules lose their natural ability to grow and shorten, they can no longer execute their key functions that are crucial to successful mitosis, thus preventing the cancer cells from dividing and prohibiting cancer cell proliferation,” Oroudjev said in a press release.

According to Jordan, although the drug is not publicly available, patients may participate in its testing.

“When linked to a tumor-targeting antibody, [maytansine] shows promising early results in clinical trials on patients with metastatic breast cancer,” Jordan said in a press release. “Current clinical trials are open to new patients.”

Jordan said the discovery was a gratifying victory for her and fellow MCDB research professor Leslie Wilson.

“Les Wilson and I have been collaborating for 32 years,” Jordan said. “It is very exciting and satisfying to both of us that many cancer drugs that we’ve worked on that inhibit microtubule dynamics are becoming successful in the clinic and are helping people to live.”

-Staff Report