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Challenging cancer

Cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide. That’s why GlaxoSmithKline is searching for new cancer treatments that attack the disease on several fronts.

A disease caused by normal cells changing so that they grow in an uncontrolled way. A simple sentence describing cancer, but one that hides the whirlpool of emotions that often accompanies its onset - for those living with the illness and for their friends and family.

Cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide. The World Heath Organization (WHO) says that of the 58 million deaths last year, 7.6 million were from cancer.

Yet statistics blur the fact that advances in medical treatments offer more patients increased opportunities to live normal lives. There is also extensive scientific knowledge about what causes cancer - tobacco, for example, has been identified as the single biggest preventable cause of cancer.

Treating cancer

Treatments aimed at curing, prolonging life and improving the quality of life of patients with cancer, as well as supportive care, are ways in which the burden of cancer can be reduced. Early detection and treatment of cancers through screening is also an effective route in reducing the burden of the disease.

In treatment, chemotherapies have been the mainstay for almost 100 years, helping improve the survival rate of patients significantly. More recently, research suggests that treatments more specifically aimed at cancer cells may offer improved efficacy while possibly reducing side effects of treatment. These 'targetted agents' may stop or slow cancer growth, although the future of cancer treatments will most probably involve combinations of different treatments.

The impact of cancer treatments themselves can have undesirable side effects on patients such as vomiting and nausea, and so the need for supportive care is important if patients are able to continue their cancer treatments.

Improving treatments for cancer

While treatments continue to improve, what is being researched today for new therapies that might become available in the future? As a research-based pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline is committed to the research and development of innovative therapeutic, preventative and supportive care products. In addition to finding new treatments and improving supportive care, our approach also includes providing people with alternatives to cigarette smoking, helping them reduce the risk of cancer from smoking.

Research into cervical and prostate cancers

 Cancer is the leading cause of death worldwide. 

Take our research into cervical and prostate cancers for example. After breast cancer, cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, with nearly 500,000 cases diagnosed each year. This cancer is caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common of which are types 16, 18, 45 and 31.

A vaccine for cancer?

A vaccine can reduce the risk of persistent infection from some of the HPV types associated with cervical cancer. GSK is working on a vaccine for post-approval use against cervical cancer in the US. In global clinical trials this vaccine has shown excellent efficacy against HPV 16 and HPV 18. These types are responsible for more than 70 per cent of cervical cancers.

A hormonal approach to treating cancer

Research into prostate cancer has shed light on the role that male hormones play in stimulating the growth of benign and malignant prostate cancer cells. With this knowledge, interest has increased in drugs that could lower male hormone levels, particularly DHT (dihydrotestosterone), the main male hormone involved in stimulating prostate growth.

GSK is applying this knowledge about male hormones to its research in prostate cancer. Studies are being carried out with an existing GSK product – for the treatment of benign prostatic hypertrophy – that could be effective in preventing prostate cancer.

New developments in cancer therapy

A new development in cancer therapy may be with drugs that can simultaneously inhibit the actions of two different types of cancer cell receptors (ErbB1 and ErbB2). Dual inhibitors, small enough to enter cancer cells, interfere with the receptors from inside the cell. Small-molecule dual inhibitors are orally administered medicines that can be combined with chemotherapy. Studies are being carried out in this area by GSK for the early and late-stage treatment of a variety of cancers.

For tumours to grow or spread to different parts of the body, they need new blood vessels to supply oxygen and nutrients. Interfering with the formation of these blood vessels offers a further approach to fighting cancer. A detailed knowledge of tumours and how to target them is a relatively new area for medical science and GSK is studying a small-molecule inhibitor that works on the inside and outside of the cell to inhibit tumour growth and spread.

Antigens and the immune response

 After breast cancer, cervical cancer is the most common in women worldwide. 

Foreign substances in the body, known as antigens, prompt an immune response. The immune system of the body, however, may not be able to naturally eradicate cancer cells. Researchers have been developing medicines that allow the immune system to more effectively discriminate between cancer cells and normal cells. One approach, called ASCI - antigen-specific cancer immunotherapeutics - may improve targetting of the right tumour antigens. It uses immune stimulants to potentially obtain the most potent immune response. GSK is developing certain ASCIs that may reduce the risk of tumours recurring in disease-free patients.

Some treatments for cancer have side effects

The distressing side-effects of nausea and vomiting for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy can have a serious negative effect on their quality of life. GSK is researching NK-1 receptor inhibitors, which block centres in the central nervous system that are involved in nausea and vomiting.

Chemotherapy and radiation can cause decreased platelet counts in patients - this can lead to dose delays and reductions as well as a variety of unwanted side effects.  GSK is researching ways of improving the platelet counts in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy regimens or radiation therapy.

The work in this area is focused on a treatment related to thrombopoietin (TBO), a naturally-occurring chemical in the body that helps raise platelet levels. This may stimulate the production of platelets in patients receiving chemotherapy.

GSK’s commitment to oncology

The commitment by GSK to advancing knowledge in oncology - the word that doctors use for the study of cancer - stems from a rich heritage. This is illustrated in the partnership of Nobel Laureates Gertrude Elion (1918-1999) and George Hitchings (1905-1998), whose research demonstrated essential differences between cancer cells and normal cells.

Among other contributions to medicine, Elion researched nucleoside analogues that were used to develop a treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and lymphoma. Her work also led to the development of a new medicine licensed in 2006 and currently marketed in the US by GSK.

Building on this heritage of innovative cancer treatments, GSK is also a major force in the battle against cancer caused by tobacco. Since the mid 1990s, GSK’s smoking cessation products have helped more that five million people around the world to quit smoking.

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