Dr Najoua Lalaoui

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Najoua’s work focuses on cancer therapeutic targets. Specifically, she investigates the different ways by which cancer cells can die in order to develop new drugs to treat cancer. Using clinical anti-cancer agents, Najoua proposes new therapeutic strategies to increase the chance of killing cancer cells. Her research aims to determine how particular drugs work, and thus predict the tumour types that these drugs may work in best and identify the patients who can benefit the most. Collectively, her studies provide a robust platform of preclinical data which help design future clinical trials.

Najoua’s current work focuses on novel anti-cancer agents called smac-mimetics. These drugs kill cancer cells by preventing the function of an ‘inhibitor of cell death’ called IAP, and Najoua’s contributions have accelerated the clinical development of the smac-mimetic ‘birinapant’ (TetraLogic/Medivir). Her findings have been published in top ranked oncology and scientific journals and led to the filing of international patents for new cancer drugs.

Najoua’s previous studies have shown that protein MK2 blocks the efficacy of smac-mimetics. Consequently, the combination of smac-mimetic and MK2 inhibitors provided remarkable therapeutic effect in leukemia. ‘To date, the available MK2 inhibitors have a poor potency and therefore high exposure of these drug would be expected to achieve therapeutic efficacy in the clinic,’ explains Najoua. ‘The chemical linkage of a smac-mimetic with a MK2 inhibitor will allow a complete destruction of MK2 and will significantly increase the efficacy of this combination.’

A ‘combi-drug’ would therefore be more efficient in killing cancer cells, would reduce drug exposure for patients and have the potential to minimise side effects. This preclinical study may form the basis for a new direction in the treatment of cancer.