07 Feb 2020

After ten years working on a new treatment for men, this researcher is at a critical point

Simon Mackay's innovative new drug needs an extra push so it can be tested in clinical trials.

Professor Simon Mackay, from the University of Strathclyde, has been working towards a new treatment for prostate cancer for the last decade. Now he’s on the home stretch, and adding the finishing touches to his drug to hopefully take it over the line into clinical trials.

Prostate cancer has been in the news in a big way this year. For the first time ever, deaths from prostate cancer reached 12,000 in a single year. And just a week later, we learned the disease had become the most commonly diagnosed cancer in England. Our mission to fund the research that will stop prostate cancer being a killer has never been more important.

Working with and alongside us, are hundreds of researchers that are dedicated to bringing men the breakthroughs that will mean they no longer have to fear prostate cancer. People like Professor Simon Mackay, who’s spent the last decade developing a chemical that could become a new treatment for prostate cancer. Now, he’s on the homestretch: the chemical stops prostate cancer growth and has the potential to be used as a new drug for the disease. So with your help, we’re funding him to help it land safely into clinical trials.

Finding the key to new treatments

Professor Mackay recalls how it all started, almost ten years ago. “I came across a protein called IKK alpha, which was found at high levels in some men with prostate cancer. It seemed to be involved with how prostate cancer develops, how it evolves into an advanced form of the disease, and how it becomes resistant to treatments.

So, I thought if I could create a chemical to hit and disable IKK alpha, we could stop prostate cancer from growing and also help men respond to treatments for longer.

But ‘hitting IKK alpha’ is easier said than done. The IKK alpha protein was like a lock that could open the door to a whole new way of treating prostate cancer, and Professor Mackay’s goal was to find a chemical ‘key’ to fit it. The problem was, he and the team only had a rough idea what the IKK alpha ‘lock’ looked like.

“Because we don’t know what IKK alpha looks like, we couldn’t design a chemical ‘key’ with a specific structure that would fit it. Instead, we had to create a library of thousands of chemicals and hope that some might fit the target.”

We managed to find some chemicals that hit IKK alpha. They weren’t very effective, but they gave us somewhere to start.

From target to drug

With a handful of chemicals in tow, Professor Mackay was awarded funding, including £250,000 from Prostate Cancer UK, to develop one into something that would be closer to an effective drug.

Professor Mackay said, “Over a number of years, we worked on our chemical to hit IKK alpha, and stop prostate cancer cells from growing. The only sticking point was how badly it was absorbed into the blood. It could stop the growth but couldn’t get to the prostate cancer.”

To correct this, Professor Mackay made a small change to the chemical’s structure, adding a single atom. It worked at improving its delivery to prostate cancer cells, but the chemical became completely inactive. Years of work suddenly went down the drain, forcing the team to go back to the drawing board.

We thought we had something that could really work, and then realising we had to start again was soul-destroying.
Simon Mackay

Staying positive in the face of defeat

“This project has certainly had its ups and downs,” recalled Professor Mackay. “Getting to a point with our first chemical where we thought we had something that could really work, and then realising we had to start again was soul-destroying.

“But every set back gives you more information. You have to be an optimist, and say, ‘well that didn’t work, but now we’ve learned something new. Those failures have all informed what we’re doing now. We know more about what does and what doesn’t work. That’s one of the things about research. Negative results are just as important as positive results."

So, the team went back to their library and developed a new chemical. A chemical that is now 10 times more powerful than their first one ever was.

Thank you for helping to bring new treatments to men

Now Professor Mackay is on the home stretch. In his current project, he’s adding the finishing touches to his chemical to hopefully take it into clinical trials.

“If it hadn’t been for Prostate Cancer UK, you and other supporters like you funding us for this final project, we wouldn’t be able to move it forward to a really good position to find a new treatment for men.

I’d be over the moon if I could help bring a new treatment to men affected by prostate cancer.

“So thank you to all the people who have donated to Prostate Cancer UK to help us all get closer to new treatments for prostate cancer.”

Give today to keep making treatment breakthroughs a reality for men.