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Chat leads to possible cancer breakthrough

What started out as a quiet chat over dinner between Australian and German scientists has the potential to create a major buzz for doctors treating cancer and other deadly diseases.

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A team of scientists from Newcastle, Sydney and Berlin have come up with a revolutionary way to prevent the spread of viruses in the human body.

The breakthrough discovery means their technique could one day be used with anti-viral drugs to stop deadly diseases such as cancer, HIV and Ebola, saving millions of lives in the process.

The idea came from a chat Professor Phil Robinson, of the Children’s Medical Research Institute in Sydney, had with German scientist Volker Haucke while dining in San Francisco three years ago.

The pair were discussing how they had been trying to find a molecule that could stop substances such as viruses entering human body cells and realised their work had a lot in common.

“We decided to join forces and not compete so that’s what we did,” Prof Robinson said.

“What we’ve found is a way to tackle infectious diseases and viral infections; not all of them but probably a large chunk of them.”

Prof Haucke, of the Freie Universität in Berlin, identified two tiny molecules out of a library of 20,000 that he believed could stop viruses entering cells.

Prof Robinson put him in touch with Newcastle University’s Professor Adam McCluskey, who used his skills as a medical chemist to develop improved artificial versions of the two molecules.

Dubbed “Pitstops” by Prof Haucke, the molecules block a protein known as clathrin that allows things such as hormones and nutrients to enter cells.

Viruses hijack clathrin so they can invade a cell and steel its genetic material in order to replicate and spread through the body.

Existing anti-viral drugs target viruses that are already in the body and try to stop them replicating.

What the scientists hope is that any new drugs that are developed based on the Pitstops will stop the viruses entering cells in the first place.

“If a virus can’t get in to replicate, then hopefully it will die off,” Prof McCluskey said.

“There’s no magic bullet for viruses or cancer. What we are trying to do is give a cocktail that will knock these things down and allow us to live fruitful lives.

“The potential is massive. I keep looking at this and so far the compounds are so simple and the scope for improvement is breathtaking.”

So far the scientists have shown in laboratory experiments that Pitstops in tissue culture can block HIV from entering cells.

The next step is to test how effective and safe the Pitstops are to use in animals before any human trials are considered.

A study based on how the Pitstops were developed is being published online by the prestigious science journal Cell on Friday.

Prof Robinson said the trio hoped the study would attract attention from scientists around the world who could help find new uses for them.

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