Cancer and the Great Divide

There are two types of cancer patients: those we can treat and those we can’t. As I reflect on this year and the years past during which we have applied the process of laboratory-guided treatment, I am reminded of this fact.

The EVA-PCD functional profile enables us to choose active treatments for patients, but I have sometimes wondered whether we are, in fact, choosing patients for the available drugs.  While the end result may not be all that different, e.g. superior clinical outcomes over randomly administered (standard) therapies, the path to that outcome, leaves room for interesting discussion.

I first pondered this issue at the time of completion of our earliest study. That study was conducted in childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Recognizing that the corticosteroids were among the most important drugs for ALL, we exposed freshly isolated lymphoblasts from ALL patients to dexamethasone (ex vivo). At the fourth day we measured the degree of cell death and separated the patients in “sensitive” and “resistant “ subgroups. Strikingly, those children whose lymphoblasts died in the laboratory following exposure to dexamethasone (ex-vivo), virtually all survived without relapse, while those children whose lymphoblasts did not die in the laboratory following dexamethasone exposure (ex-vivo) relapsed at an alarming rate with only 25 percent still alive at the sixth year of follow up (p=0.009).

What we had succeeded in doing by Day 4 of diagnosis was something that all the known prognostic factors, like age, WBC and male vs. female could not do, namely accurately identify the responders and survivors.

Today, when I test patients in our laboratory, I consistently double or even triple the response rates over standard protocols, yet a subset of patients are not found sensitive to the available therapies. Patients who do not respond to chemotherapy are today known, in the oncologic vernacular, as “failing therapy.” If we view these “non-responders” as a biologically distinct group (not unlike the dexamethasone-resistant ALL patients above) then our role, in the field of functional profiling, is to quickly segregate the responders (to available drugs) from the non-responders and move those “non-responders” immediately to something that will work for them. In this light, patients no longer “fail therapies” but instead “therapies fail patients.” It is then our mandate to use the ex-vivo platforms to find (and yes, discover) novel therapies and combinations that will meet their unmet need.

As the New Year is upon us I am filled with the expectation that 2013 will be one of discovery and innovation. Never before have so many interesting compounds been available for study. If we are fortunate enough to succeed in our efforts to collaborate with members of the drug development community and have the opportunity to intelligently apply functional profiling, for drug discovery, 2013 could be a very good year indeed.

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.

4 Responses to Cancer and the Great Divide

  1. Pat Merwim says:

    Dr. Nagourney, From the day I met you I knew that your unique way of thinking about cancer and cancer patients set you apart from “the pack”. I am reminded of a quote by Michelangelo, “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”. You see the potential for life in every patient and do your very best to set them free from cancer. I do believe 2013 will be very good year, and wish the very best to you, your family and all the patients like myself who are exceedingly fortunate to have you as our Oncologist.

  2. Elaine L. says:

    Excellent post, Dr. Nagourney. Pat your Michelangelo quote is beautiful and so apropo.

  3. hphblog1 says:

    Reblogged this on Rational Therapeutics – Hope Practiced Here for Cancer Patients and commented:
    Here is to New Hope in the New Year ….

  4. Mike Raftery says:

    May you be guided in your desire to do good for those inflicted by this seemingly incurable disease with insight, knowledge and the wisdom.

    Happy New Year!

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