UP's wonder couple take on cancer

Professors Annie and Fourie Joubert
Professors Annie and Fourie Joubert

Chemotherapy and radiation that are used currently in the fight against cancer not only attack cancer cells but also normal cells, and this leads to side effects for patients receiving treatment. In 2005, UP wonder couple Professors Annie and Fourie Joubert decided to combine their expertise in biochemistry and bioinformatics in pursuit of developing a new anticancer drug that targets only cancer cells. Together with their postgraduate students, and with national and international collaboration, they have so far achieved results that hold great promise for anticancer drug development.

Breast and cervical cancer are highly prevalent in South Africa. Fourie and Annie’s research mainly focuses on agents that target the proliferation of these cancer cells but leave normal cells unharmed. Components actively involved during cell division have to be studied with a view to preventing cancer cells from multiplying. A particular part of the cell known as the microtubule plays an important role during mitosis. It is therefore important to disrupt cancer cell microtubule dynamics in order to suppress or stop cell growth. However, a drug that not only disrupts microtubule dynamics but also interferes with the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis) will be an additional advantage to the field of cancer therapy. Without angiogenesis, nutrients’ access of cells is impaired, very much like if the roots of a plant are cut off, leading to cell death.

As Director of the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Unit, Prof Fourie Joubert used his expertise in computational methods to better determine how cells would react to various chemical compounds with a view to developing new anticancer drugs. Working under the supervision of Prof Joubert, André Stander, a PhD student, in silico designed antimitotic agents using bioinformatics software. From this study, new compounds showing potential anticancer characteristics were designed. Chemical drug synthesis was conducted by iThemba Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd.

Together with her research collaborators and postgraduate students, Prof Annie Joubert of the Department of Physiology took this study further. They are currently conducting in vitro cellular and molecular studies to assess the potential anticancer efficacy of these newly designed compounds on breast and cervical cancer cells. One of her PhD students, Joji Theron, is currently in Grenoble in France testing the anticancer efficacy of some of these compounds. The research project has successfully advanced to the assessment of the drugs’ effect on human blood cells. In order to further investigate clinical anticancer drug efficacy, in vivo studies using mouse models are expected to be done in collaboration with researchers at Onderstepoort in 2015. Different cancer markers will be measured and possible reduction in tumour size will be assessed to determine the efficacy levels of these drugs.

Cancer is a non-discriminatory disease; however, with such commitment as Professors Annie and Fourie Joubert have shown, we can only be encouraged and hopeful for the future of anticancer drug research.

Story by: Louise de Bruin, University of Pretoria