Possible new uses for anti-cancer drugs

Certain kinase-inhibiting drugs, including some used to treat cancers, show promise in animal studies for treating some inflammatory diseases too.
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False colour transmission electron micrograph of a human neutrophil. Image credit: Emily Dick and Rahman et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (or COPD) is a serious condition that causes the lungs to become inflamed for long periods of time, leading to permanent damage of the airways.

Immune cells known as neutrophils promote inflammation after an injury, or during an infection, to aid the healing process. However, if they are active for too long, they may also cause tissue damage and drive inflammatory diseases including COPD. To limit damage to the body, neutrophils usually have a very short lifespan and die by a regulated process known as apoptosis. Finding ways to stimulate apoptosis in neutrophils may be key to developing better treatments for inflammatory diseases.

Cells contain many enzymes known as kinases that control apoptosis and other cell processes. Drugs that inhibit specific kinases are effective treatments for some types of cancer and other conditions, and new kinase-inhibiting drugs are currently being developed. However, it remains unclear which kinases regulate apoptosis in neutrophils or which kinase-inhibiting drugs may have the potential to treat COPD and other inflammatory diseases.

To address these questions, Rahman et al. tested over 350 kinase-inhibiting drugs to identify ones that promote apoptosis in neutrophils. The experiments showed that human neutrophils treated with drugs that inhibit the ErbB family of kinases died by apoptosis more quickly than untreated neutrophils. Next, Rahman et al. used zebrafish with injured tail fins as models to study inflammation. Zebrafish treated with one of these drugs – known as Tyrphostin AG825 – had lower levels of inflammation and their neutrophils underwent apoptosis more frequently than untreated zebrafish. Since drugs can have off-target effects, Rahman et al. went on to show using gene-editing technology that reducing the activity of two genes that encode ErbB kinases in zebrafish also decreased the levels of inflammation in the fish.

Further experiments used mice that develop inflammation in the lungs similar to COPD in humans. As expected, neutrophils in the lungs of mice treated with Tyrphostin AG825 underwent apoptosis more frequently than those in untreated mice. These dead neutrophils were effectively cleared by other immune cells called macrophages, which also helps limit damage caused by neutrophils.

Together, these findings show that Tyrphostin AG825 and other drugs that inhibit ErbB kinases help to reduce inflammation by promoting the death of neutrophils. Since several of these drugs are already used to treat human cancers, it may be possible in the future to repurpose them for use in people with COPD and other long-term inflammatory diseases. Determining whether this is possible is an aim for future studies.