Disrupting Cancer’s Circuitry – an Electrician’s View of Oncology

In many ways, cancer can be viewed like an integrated circuit. On-off switches and back up switches constitute the controls. When one of these switches stops working and a cell “short circuits,” cancer is the result. As we become more sophisticated in our understanding of cancer biology, we begin to create drugs that specifically target these short circuits.

On April 3, 2011, I will be reporting our most recent findings on novel compounds that target two parallel circuits in cancer cells. These compounds, or small molecules, disrupt the signal that drives cancer cell survival and proliferation. While the profiles of each drug alone are of interest, the profiles of the drugs in combination are better still. The phenomenon of cross talk defines an escape mechanism whereby cancer cells blocked from one passage, find a second. When we as therapists have the capacity to block more than one pathway, the cancer cell is trapped and often dies. This is what we have observed with these duel inhibitor combinations.

What is interesting is the fact that the activities cut across tumor types. Melanomas, colon cancers and lung cancers seem to have similar propensities to drive along these paths. Once again, we find that cancer biology is non-linear. Moreover, cancers share pathways across tumor types, pathways that might not intuitively seem related. This is the beauty of our platform — for it allows us to explore drugs and combinations that most people wouldn’t think of. It is these counterintuitive explorations that will likely lead to meaningful advances.

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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