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Roche's Viracept slows tumour growth

Roche's HIV medication Viracept slows the growth of cancer cells and is undergoing human trials

Swiss-based Roche's HIV medication Viracept (nelfinavir) has been shown to slow the growth of cancer cells, researchers have found.

Viracept is now going through its first trial in patients with a range of cancers, as scientists believe that by repositioning drugs already approved as HIV therapies, they can reducing the 15-year wait and estimated USD 1bn for getting a cancer drug from the research stage to the market.

Researchers at the US-based National Cancer Institute (NCI) have been testing HIV drugs on cancer cells after realising that the toxic effects the virus has on cells are similar to the changes seen in cancerous cells.

The NCI team have added six approved HIV drugs to a wide variety of cancer cell types grown in the laboratory. Three of the drugs slowed tumour cell growth and increased cell death, according to a report in the journal Clinical Cancer Research. Viracept was the most effective, as it blocked the activity of protein-degrading enzymes in the cell, while retarding tumour growth in mice injected with cancer cells.

Before the NCI discovery, a research team at the University of Manchester had found that Abbott's HIV treatment Kaletra (lopinavir) could stop the spread of cervical cancer. The investigation has identified strong parallels between HIV and cancer, both of which buffer themselves against the immune system by appropriating the host cell's ability to destroy protective immune proteins before they can fight the proliferation of the virus/ cancer.

As a result, Viracept is now in pre-clinical trials to reveal the tolerable dose for cancer patients and how the medicine affects solid tumours in the body. In addition, the notion of repositioning drugs between therapy areas is being tested in viral infections, such as the SARS virus. Also, the anti-malarial drug chloroquine is under investigation as a potential cancer therapy.

Back in March 2007, several batches of Viracept were contaminated with ethyl mesilate, a genotoxic substance, which affected three months' worth of supplies. As a result, the EU Commission suspended marketing authorisation for the drug following its recall in June 2007. The licence will not be reinstated until Roche presents new data.

4th September 2007

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