America was shocked when Dirty Dancing star Patrick Swayze was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. His “coming out” brought attention to the silent killer, which afflicts about 30,000 Americans each year. Most – unfortunately – don’t live past a year of diagnosis. 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.
After authoring 150 papers and spending more than two decades studying the H19 gene, and then the IGF2 gene, Hochberg has earned his confidence along with his stripes: “I don’t have a problem with saying that,” Hochberg tells ISRAEL21c, referring to his new silver bullet solution.
Pancreatic cancer is often called the “silent disease” because its symptoms are non-specific in nature, and include nausea, fatigue, weight loss and back pain. Less than a third of people suffering from the disease are diagnosed within two months of the start of symptoms. As a result, by the time a diagnosis is finally made, the cancer has reached an advanced stage – only about five percent of all patients live within five years of diagnosis.
For those who can sustain the trauma, surgery is possible, and in some cases chemotherapy can prolong, or improve the quality of life.
Currently there is no effective means for diagnosing pancreatic cancer, and no effective drug on the market for suppressing it. BioCancell, may be able to answer both problems.
H19 is expressed significantly in many types of cancer. BioCancell’s diagnostic technology can detect single malignant cells which express the H19 gene, making it a promising early-warning diagnostic tool for many types of cancer.
Therapeutically, Hochberg anticipates that doctors will be able to inject BioCancell’s gene-based therapy right into a tumor in the pancreas, where it will target and kill only cancer cells. This will prolong the life of the patient, making it possible for doctors to give better odds of survival when drastic measures such as surgery are deemed feasible.
If BioCancell gets fast-track FDA approval, it could take about three to four years until both the diagnostic tool and the drugs are available.
“We are going to help people whose cancer is not operable anymore to make it operable,” says Hochberg, who has submitted BioCancell’s pancreatic cancer drug to Phase I clinical trials.
Also in Phase I trials, is another potentially life-saving drug developed by BioCancell for ovarian cancer. For some people there’s been no time to wait, however. They have received permission to try BioCancell’s therapies under ‘compassionate drug use.’ One ovarian cancer patient who was labelled “terminal by her doctor,” says Hochberg, has been alive for a remarkable nine months, he reports enthusiastically, thanks to BioCancell.
A third BioCancell drug now in Phase II clinical trials is one that targets bladder cancer. All three fall in an area called ‘translational medicine.’ The approach, Hochberg tells ISRAEL21c, 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, reports the company.
Normally found in fetal and cancerous cells, the genes BioCancell targets are barely detectable in normal cells, giving BioCancell a novel entry point to attack cancer, before it kills. Hochberg reports 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 bring his merits and efforts and turn them into something real.
After trying the drug 600 times on people already, there have been no adverse side effects. “It’s a new way of thinking,” he assures. “It’s patient oriented. I won’t treat a patient that I don?t think will succeed.”
In America, cancer is the second leading cause of death, according to the American Cancer Society in a report this year. The diagnosis of 1,437,180 new cases of cancer is expected in 2008 in the United States alone, with grim mortality rates of about 1,500 people per day.
Founded in 2004, BioCancell’s technology based on Hochberg’s research, was 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.