Researchers have discovered a weakness for some cancers. NOX4 is an enzyme and when inhibited, stops the formation of cancer associated fibroblasts (CAF) which are vital for the progression of some cancers.

Fibroblasts are healthy cells that hold numerous organs within the body together. When hijacked by cancer cells, they form CAFs which help the progression of bowel, head and neck cancers and improve cancer’s ability to invade destruction and spread. Up until now, scientists have struggled to successfully target and inhibit CAFs and very little is understood about them.

A study conducted by the University of Southampton identified that the enzyme, NOX4 was crucial for the creation of CAFs. NOX4 could be blocked by a drug already being developed to treat a condition called organ fibrosis. This new knowledge can be applied to patients which have not responded to the available treatments for cancer.

Professor Gareth Thomas (link is external), lead researcher and Chair of Experimental Pathology at the University of Southampton, said: “These cells make cancers aggressive and difficult to treat, and we can see exciting possibilities for targeting CAFs in many patients who don’t respond well to existing therapies.”

Dr Áine McCarthy, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information officer, said: “Some cancers are incredibly difficult to treat, and can use the body’s own cells to help them grow, evade treatment and spread around the body. Researchers have been trying to unlock the secrets behind this for many years and this study is a big step forward in understanding how some cancers achieve this.

“These findings show that CAFs can be targeted with a drug and their ‘pro-tumour’ effects can be reversed in mice, giving researchers a starting point to develop new and potentially more effective treatments in the future.”

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