4 August 2011
Compound designed in New Zealand starves cancer cells of glucose
Scientists from the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC) and Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular
Biodiscovery have designed a new compound that starves certain cancer cells of glucose, depriving them of energy.
The potential of the compound, STF-31, as an anti-cancer drug has been demonstrated in the laboratory through a
collaboration with researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine, and the findings have been published
today in Science Translational Medicine.
“Standard cancer therapies attack healthy tissue as well as cancer cells, causing side effects that can limit
treatment,” explains Associate Professor Michael Hay from the ACSRC at The University of Auckland and the Maurice
Wilkins Centre. “By designing new drugs that target some of the abnormal biological processes unique to cancer cells, it
may be possible to fight cancer with minimal side effects.”
One of the abnormal features of many cancer cell types is a change in the metabolic processes that turn glucose into
energy. “Normal cells can use glucose efficiently, whereas many cancers produce energy inefficiently through aerobic
glycolysis. These cells become addicted to glucose and need to import large quantities of glucose to survive,” explains
“Using STF-31 we have shown that it is possible to selectively inhibit the ability of certain cancer cells to take up
glucose. This starves them of energy and causes them to die. Importantly, treatment with STF-31 did not appear to cause
toxicity in normal cells and so presages a novel way to selectively target cancer cells.”
The research focused on renal cell carcinoma, the most common form of kidney cancer in adults. The disease is resistant
to standard chemotherapy and often requires surgical removal of the affected kidney. Most renal cell carcinomas possess
a specific mutation that makes them highly dependent on glucose.
High-throughput screening of large libraries of small molecules at Stanford University identified a simple compound
capable of selectively killing renal cell carcinoma. Based on this lead, medicinal chemists at the ACSRC in New Zealand
created a series of drugs, including STF-31, for testing in the laboratory and showed that they acted by inhibiting a
protein that transports glucose into cells. A series of biological experiments at Stanford University showed that STF-31
almost halved the amount of glucose taken up by renal cell carcinoma tumours in mice, and significantly slowed tumour
“Renal cell carcinoma is one example of a cancer that becomes dependent on glycolysis, but many other tumour types
avidly take up glucose, and this is used for PET scanning to identify and monitor these tumours. So this therapeutic
approach has the potential to treat and monitor activity in a broad range of cancers.”
The work initially arose from a collaborative research programme led by Professor Amato Giaccia at Stanford University
and Professor Bill Denny, Co-Director of the ACSRC and a Maurice Wilkins Centre principal investigator, and funded by
the United States National Cancer Institute.
It has been continued in New Zealand by Associate Professor Hay and Drs Muriel Bonnet and Jack Flanagan with support
from the Maurice Wilkins Centre and the Association for International Cancer Research. Based on the work, STF-31 has
been licensed for preclinical testing to Ruga Inc, a Palo Alto-based biotechnology company.
“New Zealand has an outstanding international reputation in biomedical science. This is another example of how our
scientists are advancing understanding of major diseases and developing innovative new ways of combating them” says
Professor Rod Dunbar, Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre.
About the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre (ACSRC)
The ACSRC was established in 1956 by the Auckland Cancer Society. Based in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at
The University of Auckland, the ACSRC is regarded internationally as one of the world's leading anti-cancer drug
development laboratories. The Centre houses over 80 scientists dedicated to discovering new treatments to help improve
the lives of patients diagnosed with cancer.
About the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery
The Maurice Wilkins Centre is New Zealand’s Centre of Research Excellence for the discovery of new treatments and
diagnostics for human disease. It brings together leading biologists, chemists, and computer scientists to target
serious diseases, focusing on infectious disease, cancer and diabetes. It includes researchers with world-class
reputations for designing new drugs for these diseases, several of which are in clinical trials.
The Maurice Wilkins Centre is hosted by The University of Auckland and incorporates researchers from six New Zealand
Universities, three Crown Research Institutes and a private research institute: The University of Auckland, University
of Otago, Victoria University, University of Waikato, University of Canterbury, Massey University, Industrial Research
Limited, Plant & Food Research, AgResearch, and the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research.