Oxford team spotlights promise of AstraZeneca drug in targeting cancers

Investigators at Oxford University say that one of AstraZeneca's ($AZN) pipeline drugs proved particularly effective in killing cancer cells with a particular genetic mutation.

The ex-Merck ($MRK) drug is AstraZeneca's WEE1 protein inhibitor AZD1775, which proved particularly lethal to genes with a SETD2 mutation, which the researchers see as a potential Achilles' heel often found in kidney cancer and childhood brain tumors.

"When WEE1 was inhibited in cells with a SETD2 mutation, the levels of deoxynucleotides, the components that make DNA, dropped below the critical level needed for replication," noted Oxford's Andy Ryan. "Starved of these building blocks, the cells die. Importantly, normal cells in the body do not have SETD2 mutations, so these effects of WEE1 inhibition are potentially very selective to cancer cells."

Merck's Roger Perlmutter

AstraZeneca landed rights to the drug back in 2013, when incoming Merck R&D chief Roger Perlmutter opted to spin it out while focusing an immense effort around the development of its PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor Keytruda. Since then, AstraZeneca has made it available to academic investigators through their open innovation program.

Since picking up the drug, AstraZeneca has posted positive mid-stage data for p53 mutated ovarian cancer at the last big ASCO meeting, noting its qualification as a first-in-class player in their pipeline.

The Oxford team worked with funding from Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council. They presented their work at the National Cancer Research Institute conference in Liverpool on Monday.

- here's the release