Hong Kong university reveals complete genetic sets of nasopharyngeal cancer

Chinese University findings may lead to development of new drugs for a more targeted approach in treating patients

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 8:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 10:26pm

Patients who have nasopharyngeal cancer, which starts behind the nose, could be given more effective treatment in the future after Chinese University researchers unveiled the complete genetic sets of a common cancer in Hong Kong.

The university, which analysed 111 tumour specimens, also found mutation of four specific sets of genes activated a group of proteins, named NF-kappaB, that promoted the growth of cancer cells in 40 per cent of the samples.

“NF-kappaB could be a new target. We could develop new drugs that specifically target this [group of proteins],” said the university’s clinical oncology professor Anthony Chan Tak-cheung.

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Nasopharyngeal cancer is commonly seen in Hong Kong and southern parts of China. In 2014, it ranked as the city’s 10th most common cancer, with 834 cases reported. But those with the disease do not suffer significant symptoms during the early stages, resulting in up to 70 per cent of cases being diagnosed only when it had progressed to an advance stage, making it hard to cure.

The study, which analysed cancer cell samples offered by 105 patients from 2015 to last year, discovered the cancer’s complete set of genetic materials by carrying out more specific testing on 15 samples.

A more thorough understanding of the cancer led researchers to find that activation of NF-kappaB, a group of proteins which lead to cancer cell growth and which should be “switched off” in healthy people, was caused by mutation or structural changes of four groups of genes.

Lo Kwok-wai, a professor from the university’s anatomical and cellular pathology department, said CUHK is now working with a British institution to develop a drug that could suppress the activity of this group of proteins. The testing on animals is expected to be completed within one to two years. If results are satisfactory, they will proceed to clinical trials.

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The study published in journal Nature Communications also found that a group of genes which helps the immune system identify infected cells failed to work properly in 30 per cent of the specimens. Such gene changes mean cancer cells may appear “invisible” to the immune system and continue growing.

Lo said the discovery could provide doctors with an indicator on whether to suggest immunotherapy, a treatment which makes use of one’s immune system to fight cancer, for patients. “If there is abnormal genetic mutation, patients might not be able to do immunotherapy. But if the gene is normal, patients could be responsive to such therapy,” Lo said.

Tsui Man-chi, a 56-year-old nasopharyngeal cancer patient, said his illness was under control, and even completed his sixth full marathon race last month. But Tsui, who has been afflicted with the disease since 2007, hoped the new discovery could completely cure him.

“I hope more appropriate drugs could be found with genetic analysis ... if I could be cured, my social life could be back to normal,” he said.