An experimental anti-cancer drug awaiting human trials destroys liver cells, and tested patients would face liver failure, say scientists.

An experimental anti-cancer drug awaiting human trials destroys liver cells, and tested patients would face liver failure, say scientists.

The drug, called Trail, had been hailed as a breakthrough in anti-cancer agents. Laboratory studies have shown it can destroy tumour cells by causing them to commit suicide. Its big advantage was seen to be that it selected only cancerous cells, leaving normal ones unaffected.

But researchers led by Dr Stephen Strom at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania say they have found Trail could also have a devastating effect on healthy cells.

The scientists, writing in the journal Nature Medicine, said more than 60 of the human liver cells exposed to Trail in the laboratory were wiped out within 10 hours.

"Apoptosis (programmed cell suicide) and cell death in human hepatocytes was massive and rapid," they reported. The cells shrivelled and their DNA fragmented. Tests on liver cells from rats, mice and rhesus monkeys did not show the same response.

Trail is an acronym for tumour necrosis factor-related apoptosis-inducing ligand. The scientists said their results indicated that if Trail was used in human trials "considerable hepatotoxicity or fulminant hepatic failure could result".

Another expert, Shigekazu Nagata, from Osaka University Medical School, also writing in Nature Medicine, said: "It may not be too late to delay clinical trials until we have a better understanding of why some cells but not others are resistant to Trail."

A new drug has been found to treat prostate cancer, offering an alternative to surgical castration, John Anderson, a consultant urologist at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield, told an American Urological Association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, yesterday.

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