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Finding the right target for liver cancer treatment

Posted on 04 November, 2014 by Roberto Inchingolo

Research into liver cancer could identify new markers to predict which treatments will work and new drug targets - which is why The Institute of Cancer Research, London, has launched a new fundraising appeal.

Liver cancer rarely makes the headlines. It is hard to detect and has one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer, with only 20% of patients living one year after diagnosis and only 5% still alive after five years. There is only one drug treatment available for patients with liver cancer and it is limited in its effectiveness, so there is a desperate need for more research into the disease.

To bridge the gap, the ICR has launched a new fundraising appeal for liver cancer, focused on the work of Dr Chiara Braconi, a clinician scientist working within our Division of Cancer Therapeutics. She is studying fascinating and little understood molecules called microRNAs – tiny signals within cells responsible for regulating the activity of genes – to understand if they can predict how a patient will respond to liver cancer treatment.

Being able to predict treatment response is extremely important to choose the best drug and avoid needlessly exposing people to side-effects if a drug is unlikely to do them any good. Dr Braconi plans to use money raised in the appeal to identify new biomarkers that can be detected with simple blood tests, and possibly novel targets for more effective liver cancer therapies.

I spoke to Dr Braconi about what makes liver cancer so difficult to treat, and how her research could help.

She told me: “There are two forms of cancer that originate directly into the liver: hepatocellular carcinoma and cholangiocarcinoma. Both are very resistant to standard chemotherapy. In addition, most liver cancer patients suffer from cirrhosis, which makes them more prone to get side-effects from drugs. Identification of biomarkers of sensitivity is the key.”

She said: “For most patients with liver cancer prognosis is very poor. The liver is a maintenance organ, and can cause the whole body to collapse if it doesn’t function properly. Fortunately, liver cancer is not as common here in the UK as other cancer types. However, this rarity has caused the research community to shift its attention to other forms of cancer, leaving us underprepared in terms of viable therapies.”

Last year 4,000 people died from liver cancer in the UK, and the incidence of the disease is increasing.

“My hope for this appeal is to spread awareness towards a form of cancer which affects more and more people every year,” Dr Braconi said. “These patients are in great need of attention and of more personalised therapies, and I hope to help provide new treatments through my research."


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