Belgian researchers discover why a drug to treat alcoholism could fight cancer

Belgian researchers have discovered why a molecule (disulfiram) used for 60 years to treat alcoholism could also prevent the development of cancer. This discovery could lead to the creation of new anti-cancer drugs.

Other studies had already highlighted the anti-cancer potential of the molecule, without understanding its mechanism. The team of Raphaël Frédérick (researcher at UCLouvain), together with the teams of professors Olivier Feron (UCLouvain) and Johan Wouters (UNamur), have succeeded in explaining this phenomenon.



A protein at the heart of the mechanism

To multiply, cells need proteins, more specifically the amino acids that compose them. One of these, serine, allows the proliferation of tumour cells.

Research has shown that the production of this amino acid depends on an enzyme (a protein that causes a chemical reaction) called phosphoglycerate dehydrogenase (PHGDH). Disulfiram happens to block PHGDH and thus the formation of serine, preventing the multiplication of cancer cells. Furthermore, in the presence of copper, the molecule inhibits a protein degradation process, which prevents the proliferation of tumour cells.

Understanding this mechanism should advance oncology research. Disulfiram is currently the focus of several clinical studies aimed at understanding the way it works in the body. The ultimate goal is to produce new cancer treatments.