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HIV drug could prevent skin cancer becoming untreatable

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Melanomas can quickly become resistant to treatmen Melanomas can quickly become resistant to treatment

A drug used to treat HIV could stop changes in skin cancer cells that leads to them becoming resistant to treatment, according to a study published in Cancer Cell.

The researchers, from the University of Manchester, looked at melanoma skin cancers from 11 patients who had started standard treatment for the cancer. They found that the cancer cells are able to withstand the standard drugs in the first two weeks of treatment, by using a ‘molecular switch.’ The cells then went on to develop permanent resistance through these genetic changes.

‘In the first few weeks of standard treatment for skin cancer, the cancer cells become stronger and more robust against treatment,’ said Professor Claudia Wellbrock, lead author of the study. ‘But if we can target skin cancer cells before they become fully resistant, we would have a much better chance of blocking their escape.’

The HIV drug, called nelfinavir, works by blocking the molecular switch which leads to the genetic changes. The researchers discovered that nelfinavir can make standard skin cancer treatments more potent and delay drug resistance, making available treatments effective for a longer period of time.

‘Melanoma can be difficult to treat because the cancer becomes resistant to drugs quite quickly. But this exciting research means we might be able to fight back by blocking the first steps towards resistance, so that treatments are effective for longer,’ said professor Nic Jones, director of Cancer Research UK’s Manchester Cancer Research Centre.

‘While drug resistance is a big challenge, we’re making great progress. Drug resistance in late stage skin cancer is still a big problem and something we need to tackle. We’ve seen big steps forward recently with the development of immunotherapies but this approach could stop skin cancer developing resistance at an earlier point,’ he added.

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