Northern Ireland scientists have made a discovery which could change the way cancer is treated and help save lives around the world.
Many cancer patients are treated with chemotherapy but while this can help cure the disease, it can also have a devastating impact on the health of the person receiving the drug.
Among the possible side-effects of chemotherapy is life-threatening damage to the heart — which means clinicians have to restrict the amount of drug administered to a patient.
However, while this protects the heart it reduces the effectiveness of the chemotherapy in destroying cancerous tumours.
At the moment the number of people who suffer damage to their heart is relatively small because doctors are aware of the dangers and tailor the dose of chemotherapy to reduce the risk.
But now researchers at Queen’s University have discovered the role of an enzyme which can cause the heart damage and they hope this will allow them to develop a drug which cancer patients can take in addition to the chemotherapy which will reduce the toxic effects on the heart.
This will allow doctors to use larger doses of chemotherapy, and in turn give patients a better chance of fighting the disease.
Dr David Grieve, jointly leading the research at Queen’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, said: “Although we have known about the NADPH oxidase enzyme for many years, until now we were not aware of its crucial role in causing heart damage associated with chemotherapy.
“Our research findings hold clear potential for the creation of new drugs to block the action of the enzyme, which could significantly reduce heart damage in cancer patients.
“Ultimately, this could allow for the safer use of higher doses of chemotherapy drugs and make the treatment more effective against tumours.
“Despite improved treatments, cancer is currently responsible for 25% of all mortality in the Western World. By reducing the risk of heart failure associated with chemotherapy, patient survival rates could be significantly increased.”
The research has been carried out in relation to the chemotherapy drug Doxorubicin, which is used in the treatment of cancer. Its most serious adverse effect is life-threatening heart damage.