Scientists discover cause of cancer resistance to breakthrough treatments

Carrick in-licenses targeted ovarian cancer treatment
Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Alexander Raths

Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research in London have identified a mutation that gives cancer cells resistance to the breakthrough cancer treatment olaparib and other PARP inhibitors.

The findings could help predict which patients will develop resistance to PARP inhibitors and allow doctors to alter treatment at the earliest possible opportunity.

The team used gene editing to identify a specific mutation in the PARP1 protein that prevents PARP inhibitors from working.

Testing for this mutation could add another level of personalisation to an already targeted treatment – helping guide decisions about whether to use PARP inhibitors in the first place, and when to switch to other drugs, such as platinum-based therapies.

The research, funded by Cancer Research UK and Breast Cancer Now, is published in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers at The Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre lead important study programmes to understand the genetic and environmental causes of breast cancer.

PARP1 is crucial for the repair of damaged DNA and is an important target for olaparib and other PARP inhibitors. These drugs are especially effective in patients who already have weaknesses in DNA repair because of inherited errors in the BRCA genes – a discovery that was made at the ICR.

The scientists used new ‘CRIPSR-Cas9’ gene editing technology to generate mutations in small, targeted sections of the PARP1 gene, and tagged the mutant protein with a fluorescent protein so their effects could be tracked.

This approach allowed the researchers to observe the effect of specific mutations on PARP1 and on the sensitivity of cancer cells to PARP inhibitors, such as olaparib and talazoparib.

Olaparib is available on the NHS for women with ovarian cancer who have inherited BRCA mutations, and is currently being evaluated for breast cancer. It was the first ever cancer drug to be approved that is targeted against an inherited genetic fault.

The study identified specific PARP1 mutations which disrupt the ability of the protein to bind to DNA, which means PARP inhibitors can no longer trap them at the site of DNA damage.

The researchers found that, contrary to their original predictions, cancer cells with certain mutations in the BRCA1 gene could survive this loss of PARP1’s DNA repair function – making them resistant to PARP inhibitors.

It is thought that in these cases the BRCA1 gene retains some function, providing some residual ability to repair DNA despite the loss of PARP1.

The scientists emphasised that further research needs to be carried out to examine more PARP1 mutations in patients as only one example in humans was found in this study.

The team is looking to apply this same gene editing approach to study how resistance arises to other drugs, and if it is possible to predict how quickly this resistance will progress.