Victorian biomedical scientists have published evidence suggesting that a particular antibody could be used to activate a cancer-killing protein.

A recent breakthrough in cancer research is bringing new hope to the 123,000 Australians diagnosed with the disease each year.

Researchers at the Melbourne-based Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have found an entirely new way of triggering cell death—a discovery that opens the possibility for new cancer treatment and cancer prevention strategies.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, the researchers show that an antibody can be used to activate the cell-killing protein, Bak.

Lead researcher Dr Ruth Kluck explains the proteins "play a pivotal role in deciding whether a cell can live or die."

Bak is inactive in healthy cells. But, when a cell receives a signal to die, Bak destroys the cell by binding to the mitochondrial walls and creating pores.

"That's the crucial step at which the cells die," explains Dr Kluck. "We'd like to be able to control the process in cancer cells … if we can get these pores to form, cancer cells will die."

An antibody has never before been recorded to trigger this process. As Dr Kluck explains, the finding could pave the way for new cancer treatments and drugs.

"You could compare this to a recent finding that there is a small molecule that can do something similar," she explains. "It is now a new drug for cancer for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia."

According to the researcher, like the cancer drug Venetoclax, the antibody could be used to "get inside cells and induce killing in a cancer cell."

If an antibody can trigger this process, Dr Kluck believes, it is also possible for the research team to "design molecules that could do the same thing."

By pursuing this new way of triggering cell death, the research team hopes to develop new cancer drugs.

As Dr Kluck explains, "At the moment there are no drugs available that directly regulate Bak and Bax."

"We are currently investigating whether this new site might be targeted by small molecules and also whether antibody derivatives can be expressed in cancer cells to activate Bak and induce apoptosis."

In the long term, the research could improve the outlook for the one in four Australian women and one in four Australian men who are diagnosed with cancer.

But the implications of the research extend far beyond cancer treatment.

While activating Bak and Bax can help kill cancer cells, deactivating these proteins could help treat a broad range of diseases, says Dr Kluck. 

"There may be opportunities for new cancer drugs but also new ways of treating some other diseases where there is too much cell death," she explains.

"There's certain immune diseases or neurodegenerative diseases where these two proteins do too much. They kill too much and we think this same site could stop that process."

Although more research is needed, Dr Kluck is optimistic about the potential for the discovery to have a significant impact on cancer treatment.

Victoria is a leading centre for cancer care, research and the development of innovative new therapies.  Built on outstanding infrastructure for drug discovery, international clinical opinion leaders and a vibrant collaborative culture, the state is connected to the world in advancing oncology cures and treatments.