Cancer Research Moves Forward by Fits and Starts

AACR logoI recently returned from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting held in Philadelphia. AACR is attended by basic researchers focused on the molecular basis of oncology. Many of the concepts reported will percolate to the clinical literature over the coming years.

There were many themes including the revolution in immunologic therapy that took center stage, as James Allison, PhD, received the Pezcoller Prize for his groundbreaking work in targeting immune checkpoints. The Princess Takamatsu Award given to Dr. Lewis Cantley, recognized his seminal contribution to our understanding of signal transduction at the level of PI3K. A series of very informative lectures were provided on “liquid biopsies” that examine blood, serum and other bodily fluids to characterize the process of carcinogenesis. These technologies have the potential to revolutionize the diagnosis and monitoring of cancers.

The first symposium I attended described the phenomenon of chromothripsis. This represents a catastrophic cellular trauma that results in the simultaneous fragmentation of chromosomal regions, allowing for rejoining of disparate chromosome components, often leading to malignancy and other diseases. I find the concept intriguing, as it reflects the intersection of oncology with evolutionary developmental biology, reminiscent of the outstanding work of Stephen Jay Gould. His theory of punctuated equilibrium, from 1972, challenged many long held beliefs in the study of evolution.

Since the time of Charles Darwin, we believed that evolution was slow and continual.  New attributes were selected under environmental pressure and the population carried those characteristics forward toward higher complexity. Gould and his associate, Niles Eldredge, stated that evolution was anything but gradual. Indeed, according to their hypothesis, evolution occurred as a state of relative stability, followed by brief episodes of disruption. This came to mind as I contemplated the implications of chromothripsis.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

According to the new thinking (chromothripsis and its related fields), cancer may arise as a single cell forced to recover from what would otherwise be catastrophic injury. The reconfiguring of genetic elements scrambled together to avoid apoptosis (programmed cell death) provides an entirely new biology that can progress to full-blown malignancy.

By this reasoning, each patient’s cancer is unique. The results of damage control whereby chromosomal material is rejoined haphazardly would be largely unpredictable. These cancers would have a fingerprint all their own, depending on which chromosome was disrupted.

As high throughput technologies and next generation sequences continue to unravel the complexity of human cancer, we seem to be more and more like those who practice stone rubbing to create facsimiles of reality from the “surface” of our genetic information. Like stone rubbing, practitioners do not create the images, but simply borrow from them.

With each symposium, we learn that cancer biology does not come to be, but is. Grasping the complexity of cancer requires the next level of depth. That level of depth is slowly being recognized by investigators from Harvard University to Vanderbilt as the measurement of humor tumor phenotypes.

Cancer is phenotypic and human biology is phenotypic. Laboratory analyses that allow us to measure, grasp, and manipulate phenotypes are those that will provide the best outcomes for patients. Laboratory analyses like the EVA-PCD.

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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