A team at the University of Virginia Health System has discovered that a compound called SL0101, derived from the plant Forsteronia refracta, a member of the dogbane family found in the Amazonian rain forest, inhibits the action of a cancer-linked protein called RSK.
The researchers have found that RSK is important for controlling the growth of breast cancer cells.
"By preventing RSK from working, we completely stopped the growth of breast cancer cells but did not affect the growth of normal breast cells," said Deborach Lannigan, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Virginia Cancer Center.
Lannigan and colleague Jeffrey Smith hope that, after further testing, their discovery could translate into a successful drug for the treatment of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women across the European Union. Britain has one of the highest breast cancer death rates in the world, according to Breast Cancer Research, with one woman in nine developing the disease during her lifetime.
Lannigan and Smith have begun testing the compound in animal models.
"We will modify the structure of SL0101, if necessary, to eventually find a compound that can be carried through to human clinical trials. That's the goal. But human trials will likely be years down the road," said Smith.
The researchers compare the discovery to the development of the drug Gleevec for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia. Like Gleevec, SL0101 is a signal transduction inhibitor that interferes with the pathways that signal the growth of tumours.
They report their findings in the 1 February issue of the journal Cancer Research.