HKU researchers believe the find could lead to 'smart' drugs to fight the killer A group of local scientists has brought new hope for development of 'smart' drugs that selectively attack liver cancer cells, treatments similar to the leukaemia wonder drug Glivec. The University of Hong Kong team says it has found a gene that researchers strongly believe will fight liver cancer. The DLC-2 gene exists in healthy people but disappears from patients with liver cancer. The gene also exists in carriers of hepatitis B, a viral illness that can progress to liver cancer, according to pathology professor Irene Ng Oi-lin, a member of the research team. The team believes the gene carries a 'tumour repressing' function. Professor Ng said the finding was essential in developing new cancer drugs to replace the conventional treatments, such as chemotherapy, which damage healthy cells and cause serious side-effects. She said the 'targeted therapy or medication' approach had been widely adopted by scientists in developing cancer treatments. Although surgery to remove cancer cells and to transplant livers has proven effective, only about a quarter of patients can receive the operations due to their poor health and a lack of organ donations, according to Professor Ng. 'The DLC-2 gene is like police, guarding against liver cancer. We strongly believe that patients develop liver cancer when the gene disappears from their bodies,' she said. 'If medicine can be developed to target these genes, the cancer cells will not be able to duplicate and will die massively, which can improve patients' chances of survival.' The pathology professor pointed out this principle was also behind the invention of Glivec, which has proved successful in stopping the spread of chronic myeloid leukaemia. Glivec blocks signals within cancer cells and prevents them from multiplying. It has to be taken by a patient for the rest of his or her life. But the expensive oral drug has been the subject of heated debate in Hong Kong after the Hospital Authority excluded the drug - which costs between $16,000 and $20,000 a month - from its subsidised items. 'We are looking forward to the participation of the pharmaceutical firms to further our research to develop a new liver cancer drug,' Professor Ng said. Liver cancer is the third biggest cancer killer in Hong Kong, costing more than 1,300 lives in 2002. There are about 1,500 new cases a year.