Cork researchers’ new chemo method could revolutionise cancer treatment

4 Feb 2022

Prof Seamus O’Reilly and Dr Tracey O'Donovan working in the Western Gateway Building at UCC. Image: Darragh Kane

Researchers are conducting clinical trials of a new chemo treatment with lithium to stop cancer cells from repairing.

A collaborative research project based in Cork is testing a potential new way of treating oesophageal, gastric and colorectal cancers.

Researchers from University College Cork (UCC) and Cork University Hospital are conducting clinical trials using lithium to enhance chemotherapy treatment and the first phase has just begun.

In a study published in PLOS One, the researchers found that lithium can block cancer cells’ ability to repair the internal damage normally inflicted by chemotherapy. This would make the treatment more effective and reduce the risk of the cancer returning again.

Lithium is typically used as a mood stabiliser in the treatment of neurological disorders and has not been used in chemotherapy before.

Chemotherapy is the most common treatment for gastrointestinal cancers, which are rarely detected early enough for surgical treatment. However, the cancer cells can be highly resistant to chemo drugs.

Cork-based charity Breakthrough Cancer Research invested more than €1m in UCC cancer research, which was looking to establish the differences between cancer cells that responded to chemotherapy treatment and those that didn’t.

A discovery was made when Dr Tracey O’Donovan and Dr Sharon McKenna set up a series of tests with cells from oesophageal cancer patients.

The researchers found that a cell recycling process called autophagy, or self-eating, enabled the cancer cells to repair themselves and recover. They then found that lithium blocks this ability to repair, which would greatly enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment.

“We were so thrilled to find a combination that could potentially make an impact on the effectiveness of treatment and improve survival. We tested this new chemo-lithium combination in several pre-clinical models and found that tumours were being cleared much more effectively than single agent treatments,” O’Donovan said.

Consultant oncologist Prof Seamus O’Reilly, who is based at Cork University Hospital and Mercy University Hospital, is leading the clinical trials.

“More and more patients are being diagnosed with cancer in Ireland on a daily basis, and we need to extend their lives. Patients don’t fail treatments but treatments sadly do fail patients,” O’Reilly said.

“We urgently need treatment advances to cure more people and to help those that can’t be cured to live longer and better. That can only be found by investing in groundbreaking cancer research. Many new cancer drug treatments are expensive, limiting their impact as societies and patients struggle to afford them. Lithium is cheap, widely available and could be globally accessible.”

Over the past 20 years, Irish medical research charity Breakthrough has helped bring eight new treatment to the clinical trial stage.

“Resistance to chemotherapy is a major challenge for clinicians and devastating for patients,” said the charity’s CEO, Orla Dolan. “This is a wonderful example of how patient-focused research supported by the generosity of the public can translate from the lab into new treatments in the clinic.”

The Cork researchers’ discovery was announced on World Cancer Day, which occurs today (4 February).

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic