Combining chemotherapy with new drugs that target a protein that helps cancer cells to withstand chemotherapy could drastically improve treatment, according to research published in Cancer Cell (2015; doi:10.1016/j.ccell.2015.06.001).

Researchers at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom carefully studied a network of proteins that kick into action when cancer cells in the lab are treated with a class of chemotherapy drugs called taxanes. 

These drugs are commonly used to treat several cancers, including breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers. But not all cancers respond to them, and it’s difficult to predict which patients will benefit.

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The scientists, funded by Cancer Research UK, measured the strength of this network in a range of cancers to try and find out why some are more likely to respond to taxane-based chemotherapy and why some are more likely to be resistant.

The team identified one particular component of this network, a protein called Bcl-xL, which helps the cancer cells survive treatment by blocking the self-destruct process that normally kills cells when treated with chemotherapy drugs.

Drugs to block Bcl-xL are already available and, by combining them with taxanes, the researchers showed in the lab that the combination of treatments killed far more cancer cells than taxanes alone.

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“This important research shows us there’s potential to boost the cancer-fighting power of chemotherapy and do more with less,” said study leader Professor Stephen Taylor, PhD, Cancer Research UK Senior Research Fellow and Leech Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Manchester.

“This new combination could ‘soften-up’ cancer cells, making it easier for chemotherapy to deliver the final blow and destroy the tumor. And the good news is that drugs targeting Bcl-xL are already out there and being tested in clinical trials.

“Using this combination of drugs could improve treatment for patients receiving taxanes and lower their chemotherapy dose, which would also help to reduce side-effects.”