BioCancell’s Prof. Avraham Hochberg: “We’re going to help people with inoperable cancer by making it operable.”America was shocked when Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. His “coming out” about the disease brought attention to a silent killer that afflicts about 30,000 Americans each year. Most, unfortunately, don’t live past a year of being diagnosed. But hope might be around the corner, thanks to a new Israeli therapy.
Normally scientists are cautious about touting breakthroughs, waiting for clinical results to be signed, sealed and delivered. Not Prof. Avraham Hochberg, the co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of BioCancell. The biochemist and molecular biologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has spent 21 years studying genes expressed in cancer, and has developed a drug and diagnostic approach which, in his words, is a “guided missile that explodes in the cancer cell,” leaving healthy cells intact.
“When you have cancer in the pancreas, you don’t have more than half a year to live… it’s severe and horrible… we are going to help people whose cancer is not operable anymore to make it operable,” says Hochberg
After authoring 150 papers and spending more than two decades studying the H19 gene, which he discovered, and then the IGF2 gene, Hochberg, now in his 70s, has earned confidence along with his stripes: “I don’t have a problem with saying that,” says Hochberg, referring to his new silver bullet solution.
In the case of pancreatic cancer, Hochberg’s protocol would enable doctors to inject the gene-based therapy right into a tumor, rendering it operable. He has submitted BioCancell’s pancreatic cancer drug to Phase I clinical trials. Another hopefully life-giving therapy, targeting ovarian cancer, is also in Phase I trials.
It could take about 3-4 years until both these drugs are available, if the company gets a fast-track FDA approval.
But for some people there’s no time to wait. They have received permission to try BioCancell’s therapies under “compassionate drug use.” One ovarian cancer patient who was labelled “a goner by her doctor,” has been alive for a remarkable nine months thanks to BioCancell, Hochberg reports enthusiastically,.
A third BioCancell drug now in Phase II clinical trials targets bladder cancer. All three fall in an area called “translational medicine.” The approach, Hochberg tells ISRAELI21c, is “simple and on a completely different line than traditional cancer drugs used today. Ours is a patient-oriented drug,” he explains. It doesn’t form a drug in a normal, healthy cell. Only in cancer cells is the drug activated.
BioCancell’s therapy targeting ovarian cancer, for example, could work in about 80-90 percent of all the people who express H19, a gene that encodes RNA (with no protein product) and which is expressed at high levels in more than 30 types of human cancer tissues. It is an optimal weapon in the fight against cancer, the company claims.
Normally found in fetal and cancerous cells, the genes which BioCancell targets are barely detectable in normal cells, giving BioCancell a novel entry point to attack cancer before it kills. Hochberg says that his therapy could work for other fatal cancers such as liver, lung and colon.
Hochberg estimates that the plasmid-based approach, activated only in cancer cells, will work against 50 different kinds of cancer. “We really have something in our hands,” he says, proud that he is able to turn his merits and research efforts into a real life-saver.
The drug has already been tested on 600 people with no adverse side effects. “It’s a new way of thinking,” he assures. “It’s patient oriented and a new way of thinking. I won’t treat a patient that I don’t think will succeed.”
In addition to therapeutic benefits, the H19 gene-based technology may also be used as a diagnostic tool for the detection of cancer.
In the United States, cancer is the second leading cause of death, according to the American Cancer Society (Facts and Figures report, 2008). The diagnosis of 1,437,180 new cases of cancer is expected in 2008 in the US alone, with grim mortality rates of about 1,500 people per day.
Founded in 2004, BioCancell’s technology is based on Hochberg’s research, and licensed from Yissum – the technology transfer arm of the Hebrew University. The company is registered in Delaware and is traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.