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Blocking copper intake shows promise as melanoma treatment

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A thirst for copper could be the Achilles heel of some cancers, US scientists believe.

It may allow tumours to be tackled with drugs used to block copper absorption in patients suffering from a rare disease.

Cancers with a mutation in the BRAF gene need copper to promote their growth, according to new research published in the journal Nature.

They include melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer that kills more than 2,000 people in the UK each year.

Lead scientist Professor Christopher Counter, from Duke University School of Medicine, said: “BRAF-positive cancers like melanoma almost hunger for copper.”

The BRAF gene is involved in regulating cell division and “differentiation” − the process by which cells become more specialised. Aggressive cancer cells are highly undifferentiated.

Christopher Counter

Christopher Counter

When mutated, BRAF causes cells to grow in an out-of-control fashion.

Laboratory experiments conducted by Professor Counter’s team showed blocking the copper uptake of tumour cells with the mutation suppressed their growth.

Similar results were achieved with drugs used to treat patients with Wilson disease, a genetic disorder in which copper builds up in body tissues and damages the brain and liver.

“Oral drugs used to lower copper levels in Wilson disease could be re-purposed to treat BRAF-driven cancers like melanoma, or perhaps even others like thyroid or lung cancer,” said study co-author Dr Donita Brady, also from Duke University.

A clinical trial has now been approved that will permit the Duke team to test copper-lowering drugs in melanoma patients.

  • Read the full study paper in Nature
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