Why is platinum used in chemotherapy and how can we make it more effective?
Expensive jewellery, dental implants and catalytic converters – these are some of the things that come to mind when you think of platinum. Ask a cancer patient and another use for platinum might come to mind – chemotherapy drugs.
Platinum based chemotherapy is used to treat a variety of cancers and most often involves drugs like cisplatin, which is usually given as a drip into your bloodstream. These drugs work to destroy rapidly multiplying cells, like cancer cells.
To understand the role of platinum in this process we firstly have to zoom out and understand a little bit about how platinum chemotherapy drugs like cisplatin work. For a cell to multiply it has to replicate its DNA – in cancer cells this process is happening rapidly as the cells spread. Drugs like cisplatin work by attaching to the DNA – the cells respond by trying to unstick cisplatin from the DNA. At a certain point, the cells give up on trying to unstick cisplatin and initiate a process to destroy the damaged cells instead.
Destroying cancer cells is a good thing and because cancer cells replicate their DNA much more rapidly than other cells, they are disproportionately targeted by the chemotherapy drugs. However, the drugs can still have an effect on normal cells, potentially leading to unpleasant side effects.
So, why platinum? Well, drugs like cisplatin are platinum compounds – which means they are made up of platinum and other elements. Platinum compounds like these all work by causing damage to the DNA of cancer cells to prevent them from multiplying.
Although the science behind these drugs is fascinating, the processes at the cell level represent a real life ordeal for thousands of cancer patients who undergo this treatment every year. There are numerous potential side effects and, despite best efforts, sometimes the treatment is unsuccessful.
What can we do to make platinum chemotherapy more effective?
Professor Srinivasan Madhusudan
The sensitivity to the chemotherapy drugs varies patient to patient. One reason that platinum chemotherapy is sometimes unsuccessful is because some cancer cells can repair platinum induced DNA damage more effectively through a process called DNA repair – this means the process of destroying the cells is never initiated and the cancer cells can survive.
Research here at Nottingham could make a real difference to restoring sensitivity to platinum chemotherapy in patients with ovarian cancer. Professor Srinivasan Madhusudan, an expert cancer researcher and clinician at the University of Nottingham, is leading some exciting work to investigate the cancer cell’s DNA damage repair system and its impact on sensitivity to chemotherapy treatment.
Some cancer cells have more of certain parts of the DNA damage repair system – Prof Madhusudan’s team has found certain proteins in the system are associated with resistance to platinum chemotherapy and poor survival as a result.
“The data we’ve generated so far provides the first evidence that this protein is key in increasing ovarian cancer cells sensitivity to platinum chemotherapy. We’re making some great progress – this work has the potential to make platinum chemotherapy more effective for ovarian cancer in the near future,” said Professor Madhusudan.
This progress has only been possible thanks to the Naaz Coker Fellowship, set up by University of Nottingham alumnus Farid Suleman right (Production Engineering, 1974) to support critical research into ovarian cancer after his sister Naaz Coker tragically died from the disease.
“I was frustrated by the lack of treatments available to Naaz and with the dismal knowledge that overall survival for patients with advanced ovarian cancer remains poor despite advances in platinum based chemotherapy I was compelled to try and do something about this, so I joined forces with the University of Nottingham to create the Naaz Coker Fellowship, supporting critical research into ovarian cancer,” Farid said.
Despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown in the UK, research has continued. Although laboratory work has paused, the team has recently focussed on analysing the extensive data already generated and research paper submissions. As lab research begins to return, the team are itching to get back to the bench and progress their research towards clinical applications.
“This is now a really exciting time for the project. The Naaz Coker fellowship has enabled us to considerably expand our research portfolio in ovarian cancer. Over the next two years, through international collaborations, we will focus on accelerating our drug development efforts. This vital research will make a significant impact and improve the lives of women who suffer from ovarian cancer.”
How you can help make platinum chemotherapy more effective
You can help take this project to the next stage. By joining Farid and supporting our Ovarian Cancer Fellowship you can help us take the findings from the lab to clinical applications faster.
“I’d say to anyone reading this – if you have a mother, sister, daughter or female friend – one day, this research could help the women you love. Innovative ovarian cancer research is desperately needed and it’s happening here in Nottingham,” Farid added.
“If you can join me by making a gift, then please do. This fellowship is too late for Naaz but it will help others, and that’s something she would be proud of.”