A Day at CHORI (Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute)

As a hematology fellow at the Scripps Clinic in the 1980s, my friend and colleague Sheldon Hendler, MD, PHD, recommended that I read an article in Science magazine. The manuscript entitled “Cancer and Diet,” by Bruce Ames, PhD, described the mutagens and carcinogens to which we are exposed on a daily basis that are found in a normal diet. His paper then examined the defenses that we have developed as a species.

Dr. Ames has distinguished himself as a pioneer in the study of aging, degenerative disease and cancer and I have read many of his papers since then. You can imagine my delight when I received a phone call some months ago and found that my interlocutor was none other than Bruce Ames, inviting me to speak at his research institute.

On Tuesday, January 31, I traveled to Oakland to present a symposium. Dr. Ames arranged for me to meet many of his colleagues. The topics ranged from neuraminic acid residues expressed as neoantigens on dividing cancer cells, to antifungal agents as anti-cancer drugs. One discussion of particular interest surrounded sphingomyelin metabolism as an important mediator of tumor cell progression. A subject about which I knew little prior to this discussion but will certainly now examine with interest.

It is my hope that I might forge collaborations with some of these investigators. But, there is little that could have prepared me for the pleasure I experienced when sitting across the table from Dr. Ames, while sipping a freshly brewed espresso (deftly prepared by Dr. Ames himself), while we discussed Bruce’s six decades of extraordinary discoveries. Everywhere I looked was an award or a textbook that he had authored. Despite his many accomplishments he was humble, engaging and very witty.

My symposium that afternoon introduced the attendees to human tumor primary culture studies as predictors of response to cancer therapy. I then moved through the accumulated data supporting the clinical outcomes and finally examined our developmental work, finishing with our published collaboration with investigators at NYU and Cornell on the study of a novel class of Wnt inhibitors. Lively discussion ensued.

Among the attendees was Bengt Mannervik, who asked several good questions. I note his presence for he is one of the leading experts in the field of glutathione metabolism and a scientist who I had met several times before. As one of the fathers of glutathione s-transferase chemistry, Bengt’s work had influenced my earlier studies. It was an unexpected honor to have him in the audience, as a visiting professor on sabbatical from Uppsala.

As I have noted before, the reception from the scientists in these fora improves as they examine the data on its own merit, unaffected by the clinical dogma and politicking that contaminates so much discourse in medical oncology today. There was no agenda, just scientific interest and open discussion. It was a refreshing departure and a welcome opportunity to interact with open-minded investigators.

In the audience was Dr. Ames’ wife, Giovanna, a former professor of biochemistry at Berkeley, and a scientist whose work included the earliest discovery of the ABC transporters, now recognized as the basis for the human p-glycoprotein drug resistance mechanisms. At the end of the lecture, Giovanna Ames, impressed by the data, raised her hand and asked, “If what you need is a small portion of each patient’s tumor to conduct these studies, what do we have to do to be sure that every doctor sends you a piece of tumor?” While I’m not sure I that have the answer to her question, I am very sure that I like the way she thinks.

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.

2 Responses to A Day at CHORI (Children’s Hospital of Oakland Research Institute)

  1. Elaine L. says:

    Dr. Nagourney do you have any data indicating the percentage of your patients who benefit from assay based chemotherapy? If they do not benefit, what are the possible reasons?

    • All laboratory tests function according to their performance characteristics, senstivity and specificity. Our test are, for the sake of discussion, approximatley 80% sensitive and 80% specific. That is 8 out of 10 times they accurately identify what they are looking for (a good drug in a responsive patient) and 8 out of 10 tiems they accurately eliminate from consideration, a drug that might otherwise have been given but to no avail (a resistant drug in a drug resistant patient). As you can see there is an “error bar” of 20% on either side. Years of testing have enabled us to maximaize our predicitive accuracies by adjusting the conditions of the test to give the best blend of sensitivity and specificity. However, no test is perfect and these performance characterstics are as good or better than most tests in medicine.

      In the real world, patients with low likelihoods of response (heavily pretreated or refractory cancers) who have a limited chance of benefit from any therapy can only improve their odds-say from 20% to 50%-. While we would suggest that doubling or tripling the “likelihood” of response is a great accomplishment, it may not translate into a good outcome for any given patient. Moving the averq\age patient from a “long shot” to a “coin flip” unfortunately still means that sometimes the coin lands on tails.

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