Scientists from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI) have discovered a class of natural substances that are produced by soil bacteria and prevent somatic cells from dividing. After years of in-depth research, the US pharmaceuticals company Bristol-Myers Squibb is now launching this agent on the American market as a treatment for cancer.

The epothilones that Prof. Gerhard Höfle and Prof. Hans Reichenbach of the HZI have been studying for more than 20 years are produced by myxobacteria living in the soil. Epothilones block the somatic cell components known as microtubules, preventing the cells from dividing any further and causing them to die off and decompose. The effect of epothilones on cancerous cells, which are characterised by their tendency to divide uncontrollably, is particularly dramatic: tumours can shrink or even disappear.

"I congratulate the scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research on this great achievement. In future, epothilone could help many patients overcome cancer. However, experience has shown just how important it is to keep your nose to the grindstone and persist with basic research. After all, epothilones are an entirely new class of agent and were initially studied for the purposes of scientific research and not specifically with the treatment of cancer in mind," says Professor Jürgen Mlynek, President of the Helmholtz Association.

The US pharmaceuticals company Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) acquired the licence for the substance known as epothilone B from the HZI and developed it so that it could be launched on the market. Starting immediately, medical practitioners in the US can prescribe it under the trade name Ixempra to treat metastatic breast cancers that have proven resistant to other medication. It is expected to be approved for use in Europe next year.