The project, funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research, will focus on using therapeutic drugs to target a specific protein called E5, which is produced by the human papilloma virus (HPV).
Scientists at the University recently became the first people to produce sufficient amounts of the protein, which is capable of transforming cells and initiating cancer, in the laboratory, enabling researchers to study it in detail for the first time.
HPV is the primary cause of cervical cancer, which is the second most common cancer in women in the developed world and the most common cancer in women in the developing world. The virus is also associated with head and neck cancers and anal and penile cancers, and so affects men as well as women, although not all people infected by the virus will develop cancer.
Since September 2008 there has been a national programme to vaccinate teenage girls against HPV, but the vaccine has no effect on those already infected by the virus and it is believed that a significant decline in cases of cervical cancer will not become apparent until 2040.
The team of scientists in Leeds have already discovered that the E5 protein forms a ring like structure that is able to puncture cell membranes, creating what is known as a ‘virus encoded ion channel’.
They hope to target therapeutic agents at that channel to try and block the pore, in a similar fashion to the way anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu are used to treat influenza.
Dr Andrew Macdonald, who is leading the study, said: “We are really excited about this study. Very little is known about this protein because no one has ever really been able to express it in the lab in sufficient quantities to study it, but we have recently learned how to do that.
“There is a major drive in the HPV community to develop therapeutics, hand in hand with the cervical cancer vaccination, but the question has always been ‘what do you target?’ We have now found a function that we can use to target these drugs.
“We are really grateful that Yorkshire Cancer Research has given us the money to fund this project. It will enable us to create a valuable tool kit which will help us to increase our understanding of the E5 protein.”
For more information
Nikki Brady, PR Officer, Yorkshire Cancer Research
Tel: 01423 877 228
Hannah Isom, Press Officer, University of Leeds
Tel: 0113 323 5764