One of the dominant themes from this track at the SBS conference was the importance of cell-based assays for lead discovery in oncology. This was common to all three sessions. The opening session plenary speaker was Paul Workman who described the importance of cell-based assays, chemical biology tools, structural biology and biomarkers in “drugging the cancer genome.” Nicol Keith highlighted the second session with an alternative approach for therapy based on inducing cellular senescence as opposed to apoptosis by targeting telomerase activity. Since an escape from cellular senescence (i.e. becoming immortalized) is one of the fundamental changes required for tumorigenesis, this appears to be a promising approach. The final session continued the theme of alternative approaches using synthetic lethality, as described by Christopher Lloyd. The premise is that two genes or proteins are termed synthetically lethal when deficiency (i.e reduction in activity) in either, separately, retains cell viability; but loss of activity in both leads to cell death. An example of therapeutic intervention would be if one synthetically lethal partner is a tumor suppressor gene, the other would be a candidate drug target. A specific example given in the talk was investigating PARP inhibition with disease associated with BRCA1 or BRCA2 tumor suppression genes.
Apart from the importance of cell-based assays, there also seemed to be a general concession that a systems biology approach will be necessary to understand the complex signaling pathways associated with disease and intervention and get an upper hand on cancer. This emphasizes the difficulty in providing efficacious therapies in oncology.