Chemosensitivity Testing That Makes Sense

Much of the controversy that has surrounded chemosensitivity-resistance assays (CSRA), reflects the fact that the majority of these tests were developed based on the erroneous belief that cancer was driven by its proliferative capacity and that the most active drugs could be chosen based upon their capacity to inhibit cancer cell growth. This led to a long series of unsuccessful attempts to predict clinical response based on cell proliferation endpoints.  Since the 1980’s we have come to realize that cancer represents a dysregulation of cell death and that effective drugs must kill cells outright (not inhibit their growth) in order to provide clinical response to patients.

The Ex Vivo Analysis of Programmed Cell Death (EVA-PCD) ® assay developed by Rational Therapeutics pioneered the application of drug induced cell death for the prediction of clinical response in cancer patients.  The EVA-PCD® assay was the first to incorporate this new understanding of cancer biology. By expanding the application of the EVA-PCD® platform to targeted therapies, RTI is now exploring new classes of compounds that function by inhibiting survival signals in cancer cells.  Many signaling pathways like the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFr) have extracellular domains that function as cellular switches activating downstream phosphorylations following receptor ligation by proteins like EGF, amphiregulin and TGF alpha.

These mitogen activated protein kinases (MAPK) induce additional cascades of phosphorylations ultimately signaling transcription factors at the level of DNA. While these phenomena were originally thought to represent mitotic events, it is now recognized that most cells are not actively dividing, yet require all of these signaling pathway activations to remain alive. Thus, what was once described as growth factors are more likely better described as anti-death factors.

If indeed cancer doesn’t grow too much but dies too little, it is evident that effective therapies induce cell death, not growth inhibition in the patient.  This is why it is critical to apply lab analyses that measure cell death. Furthermore, as most of the signals for cell survival emanate from the extracellular environment, it is clear that cancer cells must be maintained in their native state to provide clinically relevant information. This is the basis of RTI’s human tumor microspheroid assay platform.

About Dr. Robert A. Nagourney
Dr. Nagourney received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and his doctor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a University Scholar. After a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, Irvine, he went on to complete fellowship training in medical oncology at Georgetown University, as well as in hematology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. During his fellowship at Georgetown University, Dr. Nagourney confronted aggressive malignancies for which the standard therapies remained mostly ineffective. No matter what he did, all of his patients died. While he found this “standard of care” to be unacceptable, it inspired him to return to the laboratory where he eventually developed “personalized cancer therapy.” In 1986, Dr. Nagourney, along with colleague Larry Weisenthal, MD, PhD, received a Phase I grant from a federally funded program and launched Oncotech, Inc. They began conducting experiments to prove that human tumors resistant to chemotherapeutics could be re-sensitized by pre-incubation with calcium channel blockers, glutathione depletors and protein kinase C inhibitors. The original research was a success. Oncotech grew with financial backing from investors who ultimately changed the direction of the company’s research. The changes proved untenable to Dr. Nagourney and in 1991, he left the company he co-founded. He then returned to the laboratory, and developed the Ex-vivo Analysis - Programmed Cell Death ® (EVA-PCD) test to identify the treatments that would induce programmed cell death, or “apoptosis.” He soon took a position as Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. His primary research project during this time was chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He remained in this position until the basic research program funding was cut, at which time he founded Rational Therapeutics in 1995. It is here where the EVA-PCD test is used to identity the drug, combinations of drugs or targeted therapies that will kill a patient's tumor - thus providing patients with truly personalized cancer treatment plans. With the desire to change how cancer care is delivered, he became Medical Director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in 2003. In 2008, he returned to Rational Therapeutics full time to rededicate his time and expertise to expand the research opportunities available through the laboratory. He is a frequently invited lecturer for numerous professional organizations and universities, and has served as a reviewer and on the editorial boards of several journals including Clinical Cancer Research, British Journal of Cancer, Gynecologic Oncology, Cancer Research and the Journal of Medicinal Food.

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