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Why are women more at risk of adrenal cancer?

Adrenocortical cancers (tumours of the adrenal gland) are a rare but highly aggressive disease. In mice and humans there is a clear sex bias with females approximately three times more likely to develop this cancer than males. The biological basis for this sex difference is unclear, but an understanding of the molecular processes responsible might help develop sex-specific treatments or preventive strategies.

Dr Andreas Schedl and his team at INSERM, France, have developed a mouse model of adrenal cancer which shows similar sex-difference patterns of cancer seen in humans. They now want to use this mouse model to work out what is going on at a molecular level in the adrenal that causes this difference. They are particularly interested in the processes that cause stem cells within the adrenal to divide uncontrollably.

New treatments for adrenal cancer

Dr Pierre Val in France is investigating a potentially new way to treat adrenal cancer, a rare but serious disease.

Surgical removal of the main tumour is the standard treatment for adrenal cancer, but for around half of patients the cancer has already spread by the time it is diagnosed. This can make it very hard to treat.

“There is an urgent need for new effective treatments for patients with adrenal cancer which has spread,” says Dr Val. “If we can identify the unique genetic changes which happen in the cancer cells for this type of disease, we can use this information to develop novel targeted therapies.”

“We have previously found that a certain set of genes which are normally turned off in most adult cells are actually reactivated in tumours of about 40% of adrenal cancer patients. In this project we will now investigate in the lab exactly how and why this set of genes are activated, and how this reactivation might lead to more aggressive disease.”

“We also want to test in mice a new drug which blocks activation of these genes and which is already in clinical trials for other types of cancer. If successful, this work will pave the way for future treatment of adrenal cancer patients.”