One of the unexpected benefits of genetic research is that it sometimes turns up abnormal genes in a disease like cancer which can be targeted by a medication that was originally designed for another condition altogether.
This looks like being the case for a rare group of tumours called sarcomas which affect the soft tissues of the body and bone. They affect young people, are generally treated by surgery and when that fails need chemo and radiation therapy which often don’t work very well.
A search for genes in sarcoma found one that wasn’t known to be a cancer gene. When researchers at the Garvan Institute in Sydney looked at this gene in sarcoma-prone mice they found it was indeed linked to sarcoma and the link was a substance called IL23 which affects the immune system. Studies of human osteosarcoma (bone sarcoma) also found raised levels of IL23 and when the IL23 gene was knocked out in the mice, their risk of sarcoma was reduced.
The good news is that humans don’t need to have their IL23 gene knocked out. One of the new drugs for psoriasis – an autoimmune condition of the skin – works by blocking IL23.
The next step will be a trial of one of these psoriasis medications in people with sarcoma to see if there is an effect, saving millions of dollars and years of research that would otherwise have been needed to develop a new medication from scratch.