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(Epi)genetic Cancer Drugs

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Drugmakers like GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly, and Novartis are trying something new when it comes to cancer drugs. Instead of making therapies that kill tumors or block the mutations that fuel tumor growth, these companies are trying to reprogram DNA that can make cells cancerous before that process ever starts, says Bloomberg's Robert Langreth. "These new drugs exploit an emerging understanding of the epigenome, the molecular machinery that cells use to turn genes on and off, directing them when to produce proteins that carry out most functions of life," he adds. Celgene's epigenetic compound Vidaza adds months to the lives of myelodysplastic syndrome patients and companies like Merck and Esai are also developing blood cancer drugs that take this approach. Companies have yet to develop such treatments for more common forms of cancer like lung cancer, breast cancer, or prostate cancer, Langreth says, but the approach is becoming more widespread. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center's Jean-Pierre Issa tells Langreth that every major company he knows of now has an epigenetics program. One target drugmakers could go after in the EZH2 enzyme, which is overactive in breast cancer, Langreth says. Epigenetic drugs could also make tumors more sensitive to existing treatments, making those drugs more efficacious, he adds. Glaxo's Dash Dhanak says the epigenetics effort will have a "significant impact" on the way we treat cancer — if it lives up to the hype.

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