Innovative Research Offers Hope for Safer Cancer Treatment Therapies

By: Sam Watanuki | Published: Jun 04, 2024

Scientists at Washington State University (WSU) have made a groundbreaking discovery in cancer treatment. By blocking a protein known as CDK7, they can reduce heart damage caused by chemotherapy and boost its cancer-fighting effects.

This could revolutionize cancer therapy, making it safer and more effective.

The Dual Problem with Doxorubicin

Doxorubicin is a powerful chemotherapy drug used to treat various cancers. While effective against cancer cells, it is notorious for its severe heart toxicity.

An empty chair in a chemotherapy room in a hospital

Source: Freepik

This can lead to long-term heart problems like heart failure and cardiomyopathy, surfacing years after treatment.

Unraveling Heart Damage Mechanisms

Senior study author Zhaokang Cheng has been investigating how doxorubicin causes heart damage.

Two hands clad in pink latex gloves cradle a detailed anatomical model of a human heart against a pink background

Source: Freepik

The drug activates the protein CDK2, which then triggers another protein, FOXO1, leading to heart cell death. Understanding this process is key to finding protective measures.

Focus on CDK7

Cheng’s team, in collaboration with cancer biology researcher Boyang (Jason) Wu, turned their attention to CDK7.

1ua2: Crystal Structure of Human CDK7

Source: Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformatics Institute/Wikipedia

This protein fuels cell growth and is involved in cancer development. The researchers discovered that CDK7 activates CDK2, setting off the harmful chain reaction in heart cells.

Protective Role of CDK7 Inhibition

The study showed that mice lacking the CDK7 gene were protected from doxorubicin-induced heart damage. This finding highlights the potential of targeting CDK7 to prevent chemotherapy-related heart issues, paving the way for safer treatments.

A young female patient, wearing a gray headscarf and a red cardigan over a white shirt, is seated in a hospital chemotherapy chair with her eyes closed. An intravenous (IV) stand is delivering medication via a line to her arm

Source: freepik

In other words, inhibiting CDK7 can stop the harmful effects of doxorubicin on heart cells. This could lead to new treatments that protect cancer patients from heart damage caused by chemotherapy.

THZ1: A Promising Inhibitor

The researchers used THZ1, a CDK7 inhibitor, to block the protein’s activity. This not only improved heart health in the mice but also inhibited tumor growth.

A detailed anatomical model of a human heart with labeled parts is placed against a grey background

Source: Robina Weermeijer/Unsplash

THZ1’s dual benefits make it a promising candidate for combination with doxorubicin.


First to Study Dual Effects

“We are the first to study the effect of THZ1 on the heart and on tumor growth in the same model,” said study first author Jingrui Chen.

Scientists analyzing a sample with a microscope

Source: Freepik

This dual focus could lead to treatments that protect the heart while effectively fighting cancer.


Potential for Combination Therapy

Combining doxorubicin with THZ1 could offer a new strategy to reduce heart damage and increase chemotherapy effectiveness.

A hand holds a colorful anatomical model of a human heart, displaying the external structures and blood vessels against a blurred background of other medical models

Source: Jesse Orico/Unsplash

This approach holds promise for improving the quality of life and survival rates for cancer patients.


Future Research Directions

The next steps include testing THZ1 on younger mice to mimic long-term heart toxicity seen in childhood cancer survivors.

An image of a scientist working on research in his laboratory

Source: Freepik

The team also plans to explore other proteins involved in doxorubicin-induced heart damage, aiming for a more comprehensive solution.


Funding and Support

This study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, with additional support from the National Cancer Institute.

A scientist holding a glass vial.

Chokniti Khongchum/Pexels

This backing highlights the significance and importance of the research in advancing cancer treatment.


Long-Term Impact

Heart damage from chemotherapy can take decades to manifest, making early prevention crucial.

Person in the hospital with a heart rate machine in the foreground

Source: Freepik

By blocking CDK7, this research could help prevent long-term heart issues, providing a safer future for cancer survivors.


Hope for the Future

The innovative work at WSU offers hope for safer cancer treatments.

Scientists working together in a laboratory

Source: Urcomunicacion/Wikimedia Commons

With continued research and development, combining chemotherapy with CDK7 inhibitors like THZ1 could become a standard practice, protecting patients’ hearts while effectively combating cancer.