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Salk Scientists Find Diabetes Drug Treats Lung Cancer

Reuben Shaw, an associate professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, talks to KPBS about his finding that drugs designed to work on diabetes could also work on cancer.

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available. A transcript has been made available.

Some 10 years ago, Reuben Shaw, now an associate professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, discovered that a gene altered by lung cancer regulated an enzyme used to treat diabetes. He hoped there was more to the story, and he continued to theorize about the relationship between metabolic diseases like diabetes and cancer.

He wondered, for instance, if drugs designed to work on diabetes could also work on cancer. Ten years after his original discovery, Shaw is finding that the answer to that question appears to be yes.

"It suggested a potential therapeutic Achilles' heel, if you will, for tumors that have this particular genetic alteration," he said. "So then searching for what types of things might lower the metabolism of certain cells, it turns out that they're not existing cancer drugs, but actually the world of diabetes research."

Shaw and his team at Salk's new Helmsley Center for Genomic Medicine have found growing evidence that a drug called phenformin, a derivative of a widely used diabetes drug called metformin, shrank lung cancer tumors in mice and increased the animals' survival.

Shaw's team is part of a group of scientists at the research facility working to decode the genetic factors in common chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

According to Shaw, the amount of genetic information currently available has made the process of decoding, theorizing, testing and eventually tailoring a cure to a specific disease much more fruitful.

Claire Trageser contributed to this report.

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