MedUni Vienna: New treatment option for cancer, diabetes and obesity

(Vienna 12th October 2012) Cancer, diabetes and obesity all have one thing in common: they change the metabolic processes in cells. Scientists from the MedUni Vienna and the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg have now unravelled a new signalling pathway involved in cell metabolism. Substances that activate this signalling pathway could be used to treat obesity and diabetes. The scientists have also learned why different new active substances used to fight cancer have severe side effects.

The recently-discovered Hedgehog signalling pathway completely reverses the metabolism while at the same time activating calcium-dependent enzymes. “The new signalling pathway enables cells, particularly muscle and brown fat cells, to absorb huge amounts of glucose,” says Dr. Harald Esterbauer from the Clinical Department of Medical and Chemical Laboratory Diagnostics at the MedUni Vienna. “Substances that exclusively activate the new Hedgehog signalling pathway are therefore candidates for medications aimed at treating obesity as well as type 1 and type 2 diabetes.”

The influx of calcium into the muscle cells, however, also causes cells to contract and trigger severe cramps. This is an unpleasant side effect that is occurring increasingly commonly with a cancer drug that has been approved by the America Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The recent study, which has now been published in the highly respected journal “Cell”, demonstrated that there are indeed Hedgehog inhibitors that prevent calcium and glucose levels from rising and triggering cramps. “It would therefore appear that the development of drugs with fewer side effects is perfectly possible,” says Esterbauer.   

Hedgehog is a protein that is involved not only in embryo development, but also in the multiplication, migration and specialisation of cells, for example in cases of cancer. Hedgehog also blocks the formation of “bad” white fatty tissue, a mechanism that the researchers from Vienna discovered two years ago.

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