Ovarian Cancer Survivor Seeks “Compassionate Use” Drug Exemption From BioMarin to Save Her Life

Andrea Sloan, a 7-year survivor of stage 3c ovarian cancer, is seeking a “compassionate use” exemption from pharmaceutical company BioMarin to save her life. Sloan is scheduled to start treatment at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center on September 5 and would like to obtain access to the “PARP 1/2 inhibitor” drug known as “BMN 673” by that time. A robust grassroots campaign in support of Sloan has emerged on social media and Change.org in an effort to get an affirmative response from BioMarin.

Andrea Sloan, a seven-year survivor of ovarian cancer, is seeking a compassionate use exemption from pharmaceutical company BioMarin to save her life. Sloan, the executive director of a non-profit that advocates for survivors of domestic violence and abuse, now finds herself forced to publicly advocate for herself in a last chance effort to get the cancer treatment she needs.

Andrea Sloan, a 7-year, stage 3c survivor of ovarian cancer, is seeking a “compassionate use” investigational cancer drug exemption from pharmaceutical company BioMarin to save her life. Sloan, the executive director of a non-profit that advocates for survivors of domestic violence and abuse, now finds herself forced to publicly advocate for herself in a last chance effort to get the cancer treatment she needs.

Drugs that are being tested but have not yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are called “investigational drugs.” These drugs are generally available only to people who are taking part in a clinical trial. The FDA “Expanded Access” protocol — sometimes referred to as a “compassionate use” exemption — involves the use of an investigational drug outside of a clinical trial to treat a patient with a serious or immediately life-threatening disease or condition, who has no comparable or satisfactory alternative treatment options.

FDA regulations allow access to investigational drugs for treatment purposes on a case-by-case basis for an individual patient, or for intermediate-size groups of patients with similar treatment needs who otherwise do not qualify to participate in a clinical trial. Before an investigational drug can qualify for compassionate use, the patient’s physician, the FDA, and the drug manufacturer must approve such use.

Unfortunately, drug manufacturers may not always be willing or able to provide access to a drug outside of their clinical trials. By law, drug companies are not required to make their drug available through the FDA expanded access protocol, or to make more of a drug for that purpose.

Andrea Sloan, a 7-year survivor of stage 3c ovarian cancer, is seeking a compassionate use exemption from pharmaceutical company BioMarin to save her life. Sloan is scheduled to start treatment at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center on September 5, and she would like to obtain access to the “PARP 1/2 inhibitor” drug known as “BMN 673” by that time. A robust grassroots campaign in support of Sloan has emerged on social media and Change.org in an effort to get an affirmative response from BioMarin.

“BioMarin’s BMN 673 offers me the best chance at a long life,” said Sloan. “My doctors and the FDA agree that I am an excellent candidate for this drug and meet the criteria for compassionate use exemption. However, BioMarin’s lack of a policy on compassionate use is preventing me from gaining access to the drug I need to save my life. I respectfully implore them to reconsider and make the ethical decision to help me.” [Emphasis added]

Sloan has endured two full rounds of chemotherapy, five surgeries, and a stem cell transplant. While her cancer remains responsive to treatment, her bone marrow can no longer tolerate traditional therapies. Her world-class oncology team at M.D. Anderson believes that BioMarin’s PARP inhibitor BMN 673, which is currently being tested in a phase I solid tumor clinical trial, is the best option for Sloan’s BRCA-1 gene-mutated form of ovarian cancer.

Unfortunately, Sloan hit a barrier in gaining access to BMN 673. Further enrollment of ovarian cancer patients in the phase I solid tumor trial is now closed, and the publicly announced portion of the trial that will be entering phase III testing is only open to BRCA gene-mutated breast (but not ovarian) cancer patients. Therefore, Sloan is left with the compassionate use exemption as her only option to access the drug she needs to fight her cancer. Based on FDA requirements, Sloan qualifies for the compassionate use exemption. Data emerging from the phase I BMN 673 study suggest that the drug is a safe and effective treatment option for patients with BRCA gene-mutated ovarian cancer.

Moreover, on August 16, 2013, BioMarin announced that its medical study abstract, entitled “PARP inhibition with BMN 673 in ovarian and breast cancer patients with deleterious mutations of BRCA1 and BRCA2,” has been selected as a “late breaking” abstract by the 17th ECCO — 38th ESMO — 32nd ESTRO European Cancer Congress, which will be held from September 27 through October 1, 2013 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. BioMarin’s oral presentation at the European Cancer Congress (scheduled for September 29, 2013) will include data presented from 28 ovarian cancer patients with deleterious germline (inherited) BRCA gene mutations, including 17 patients from the phase I BMN 673 trial dose escalation cohort (range 100 µg to 1100 µg) and 11 patients from the dose expansion cohort. Presumably, the most recent ovarian cancer patient data to be presented at the European Cancer Congress will expand upon the positive data presented by the company at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which indicate that positive RECIST (“Response Evaluation Criteria in Solid Tumors“) and/or CA-125 ovarian cancer patient responses occurred at BMN 673 drug doses ≥ 100 µg/d in 11 out of 17 (64%) BRCA gene-mutated ovarian and peritoneal cancer patients. The positive RECIST medical imaging findings and the CA-125 blood test results highlight the promising effectiveness of BMN 673, albeit among a small group of ovarian cancer patients.

BMN 673 is a targeted therapy designed to disrupt the tumor without traditional chemotherapy drug side effects, thereby making it an optimal treatment for Sloan.

Despite Sloan’s best efforts, she has been unable to convince BioMarin to allow compassionate use of BMN 673. BioMarin, according to Sloan, has not been cooperative, merely citing their lack of a policy on the issue. Sloan, the executive director of a non-profit that advocates for survivors of domestic violence and abuse, now finds herself forced to publicly advocate for herself in a last chance effort to save her life. Sloan is committed to advocating for meaningful reform on this topic and hopes BioMarin will lead by example in starting a national dialogue.

If you would like to help Andrea Sloan obtain compassionate use of BMN 673, please click on this picture and sign her petition at Change.org.

If you would like to help Andrea Sloan obtain compassionate use of BMN 673, please click on this picture and sign her petition at Change.org.

For those interested in supporting Andrea Sloan, please sign her petition on Change.org that urges BioMarin to grant her a compassionate use investigational cancer drug exemption for BMN 673. Also, you can follow Andrea on Twitter at @andi_sloan.

Update:

Yesterday, BioMarin issued a statement to KXAN, an Austin, Texas local affilate of NBC, in response to a in-depth news story that KXAN aired tonight regarding Andrea Sloan’s dire situation. Effectively, BioMarin rejected Andrea Sloan’s request for compassionate use of BMN 673, although its statement was worded as a general drug “expanded access” policy explanation.

BioMarin acknowledged that it allowed preapproved expanded access to one of its investigational drugs which completed phase III clinical testing last year. In terms of general guidelines for its expanded access programs, the company stated:

“We implement these [expanded access] programs when we have sufficient scientific evidence to support both the safety and the efficacy of a product for an indication. Additionally, we implement these programs only when we can ensure that access will be provided equitably, ensuring that the process is appropriately blinded, and when we are confident that the expanded access will not inhibit our clinical trial plans or clinical trials for a disease generally.”

In terms of Andrea Sloan’s specific case, BioMarin stated that it does not comment on the status of individual patients. Apparently in a refusal to grant expanded access to any preapproved patient who requests compassionate use of BMN 673 prior to completion of phase III drug testing, the company stated:

“… However, we note that, although the current data [for BMN 673] that we have looks promising, there is no data at this point to support anything beyond dosing and some preliminary safety. It is too early to know if the experimental therapy is safe or effective, or will even prolong life, until we conduct the appropriate Phase 3 trials. The data that we have is from an ongoing early stage clinical trial, and it is the first trial that we have ever done with this therapy in humans.”

Accordingly, it appears that BioMarin’s current expanded access policy for its investigational drugs, such as BMN 673, will only extend to drugs that have already completed phase III clinical trial testing.

Sources:

  • Ovarian Cancer Survivor Andrea Sloan Seeks Compassionate Use Exemption From BioMarin to Save Her Life, Press Release, Digital Journal, August 29, 2013.
  • BioMarin Provides BMN 673 Program Update, BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc, Press Release, July 25, 2013.
  • Shen Y. et al.  BMN 673, a novel and highly potent PARP-1/2 inhibitor for the treatment of human cancers with DNA repair deficiencyClin Cancer Res. 2013 Jul 23. PMID: 23881923 [Epub ahead of print]
  • A Phase 1, First in Human, Single-arm, Open-label Study of Once a Day, Orally Administered BMN 673 in Patients With Advanced or Recurrent Solid Tumors. ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT01286987.
  • Advocate for others needs help in a fight for her life, by Shannon Wolfson & Joe Ellis, In-Depth Investigation, KXAN News, August 29, 2013.
  • BioMarin Announces Oral Presentation of BMN 673 Most Recent Data on Breast and Ovarian Cancers at the European Cancer Congress 2013, Press Release, August 16, 2013.

FDA Approves Clinical Protocol for Additional Phase 1 Study of TKM-PLK1 in Primary Liver Cancer or Liver Metastases

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves the clinical protocol for an additional Phase 1 study of TKM-PLK1 in patients with either primary liver cancer or liver metastases associated with select cancers including ovarian.

RNA Interference

Nucleic acids are molecules that carry genetic information and include DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid). Together these molecules form the building blocks of life. DNA contains the genetic code or “blueprint” used in the development and functioning of all living organisms, while one type of RNA (i.e., “messenger RNA” or mRNA) helps to translate that genetic code into proteins by acting as a messenger between the DNA instructions located in the cell nucleus and the protein synthesis which takes place in the cell cytoplasm (i.e., outside the cell nucleus, but inside the outer cell membrane). Accordingly, DNA is first copied or transcribed into mRNA, which, in turn, gets translated or synthesized into protein.

The molecular origin of many diseases results from either the absence or over-production of specific proteins. “RNA interference” (RNAi) is a mechanism through which gene expression is inhibited at the translation stage, thereby disrupting the protein production. RNAi is considered one of the most important discoveries in the field of molecular biology. Andrew Fire, Ph.D., and Craig C. Mello, Ph.D. shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work that led to the discovery of the RNAi mechanism.  Because many diseases – cancer, metabolic, infectious and others – are caused by the inappropriate activity of specific genes, the ability to silence genes selectively through RNAi offers the potential to revolutionize the way we treat disease and illness by creating a new class of drugs aimed at eliminating specific gene-products or proteins from the cell. RNAi has been convincingly demonstrated in preclinical models of oncology, influenza, hepatitis, high cholesterol, diabetes, macular degeneration, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.

Small Interfering RNA 

While the mechanism itself is termed “RNAi,” the therapeutic agents that exert the effect are known as “small interfering RNAs” or siRNAs. Sequencing of the human genome has provided the information needed to design siRNA therapeutics directed against a wide range of disease-causing proteins. Based on the mRNA sequence for the target protein, a siRNA therapeutic can be designed relatively quickly compared to the time needed to synthesize and screen conventional small molecule drugs. Moreover, siRNA-based therapeutics are able to bind to a target protein mRNA with great specificity. When siRNA are introduced into the cell cytoplasm they are rapidly incorporated into an “RNA-induced silencing complex” (RISC) and guided to the target protein mRNA, which is then cut and destroyed, preventing the subsequent production of the target protein. The RISC can remain stable inside the cell for weeks, destroying many more copies of the target mRNA and maintaining target protein suppression for long periods of time.

To our knowledge, there are no siRNAs approved yet for medical use outside of a clinical trial, however, a number of R&D initiatives and clinical trials are currently underway, with one of the main areas of research focused on delivery. Because siRNAs are large, unstable molecules, they are unable to access target cells. Delivery technology is required to stabilize these drugs in the human blood stream, allow efficient delivery to the target cells, and facilitate uptake and release into the cell cytoplasm. Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation, a leading developer of RNAi therapeutics has focused its research on identifying lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) that can overcome the challenges of delivering siRNAs.

TKM-PLK1 

TKM-PLK1 is being developed as a novel anti-tumor drug in the treatment of cancer. LNPs are particularly well suited for the delivery of siRNA to treat cancer because the lipid nanoparticles preferentially accumulate within tissues and organs having leaky blood vessels, such as cancerous tumors. Once at the target site, LNPs are taken up by tumor cells and the siRNA payload is delivered inside the cell where it reduces expression of the target protein. Through careful selection of the appropriate molecular targets, LNPs are designed to have potent anti-tumor activity yet be well tolerated by healthy tissue adjacent to the tumor.

Tekmira has taken advantage of this passive targeting effect to develop an siRNA directed against PLK1 (polo-like kinase 1), a protein involved in tumor cell proliferation. Inhibition of PLK1 prevents the tumor cell from completing cell division, resulting in cell cycle arrest and cell death.

Because the standard of care for cancer treatment often involves the use of drug combination therapies, Tekmira has selected gene targets for its oncology applications that synergize with conventional drugs that are currently in use. TKM-PLK1 has the potential to provide both direct tumor cell killing and sensitization of tumor cells to the effects of chemotherapy drugs.

Phase 1 Study of TKM-PLK1 in Primary Liver Cancer or Liver Metastases

Tekmira, along with its collaborators at the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI), announced that they have received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to proceed with a new Phase 1 clinical trial for Tekmira’s lead oncology product, TKM-PLK1. This trial, run in parallel with the ongoing Phase 1 trial of TKM-PLK1 (for adult patients with solid tumors or lymphomas that are refractory to standard therapy), provides Tekmira with an early opportunity to validate the mechanism of drug action.

“Patients in this new study, who will have either primary liver cancer or liver metastases, will receive TKM-PLK1 delivered directly into the liver via Hepatic Artery Infusion (HAI). The trial design will allow us to measure tumor delivery, polo-like kinase 1 (PLK1) messenger RNA knockdown, and RNA interference (RNAi) activity in tumor biopsies from all of the patients treated,” said Dr. Mark J. Murray, Tekmira’s President and CEO.

“This NCI clinical trial will run in parallel with our multi-center TKM-PLK1 solid tumor Phase 1 trial, currently underway at three centers in the United States. Working together on this clinical trial with our collaborators at the NCI will allow us to develop an even more robust data package to inform subsequent TKM-PLK1 development. We expect to have interim TKM-PLK1 clinical data before the end of 2011,” added Dr. Murray.

The NCI trial is a Phase 1 multiple-dose, dose escalation study testing TKM-PLK1 in patients with unresectable colorectal, pancreatic, gastric, breast, ovarian and esophageal cancers with liver metastases, or primary liver cancers. These patients represent a significant unmet medical need as they are not well served by currently approved treatments.

The primary objectives of the trial include evaluation of the feasibility of administering TKM-PLK1 via HAI, and characterization of the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of TKM-PLK1. Pharmacodynamic measurements will examine the effect of the drug on the patient’s tumors, specifically aiming to confirm PLK1 knockdown and RNAi activity. Typically reserved for later stage trials, pharmacodynamic measurements are facilitated in this Phase 1 trial in part through the unique capabilities of the NCI Surgery Branch. Secondary objectives of the trial include establishing maximum tolerated dose and to evaluate response rate.

About the National Cancer Institute

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is one of 27 institutes and centers under the oversight of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), and is the primary cancer medical research agency in the U.S. The TKM-PLK1 trial will involve investigators at the NCI’s Center for Cancer Research (CCR) on the main NIH campus located in Bethesda, Maryland. The CCR is home to more than 250 scientists and clinicians working in intramural research at the NCI. CCR’s investigators include some of the worlds most experienced basic, clinical, and translational scientists who work together to advance our knowledge of cancer and develop new therapies.

About TKM-PLK1

TKM-PLK1 targets polo-like kinase 1, or PLK1, a cell cycle protein involved in tumor cell proliferation and a validated oncology target. Cancer patients whose tumors express high levels of PLK1 have a relatively poor prognosis. Inhibition of PLK1 prevents tumor cells from completing cell division, resulting in cell cycle arrest and cancer cell death.

About RNAi and Tekmira’s LNP Technology

RNAi therapeutics have the potential to treat a broad number of human diseases by “silencing” disease causing genes. The discoverers of RNAi, a gene silencing mechanism used by all cells, were awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. RNAi therapeutics, such as “siRNAs,” require delivery technology to be effective systemically. LNP technology is one of the most widely used siRNA delivery approaches for systemic administration. Tekmira’s LNP technology (formerly referred to as “stable nucleic acid-lipid particles” or SNALP) encapsulates siRNAs with high efficiency in uniform lipid nanoparticles which are effective in delivering RNAi therapeutics to disease sites in numerous preclinical models. Tekmira’s LNP formulations are manufactured by a proprietary method which is robust, scalable and highly reproducible and LNP-based products have been reviewed by multiple FDA divisions for use in clinical trials. LNP formulations comprise several lipid components that can be adjusted to suit the specific application.

About Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation

Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation is a biopharmaceutical company focused on advancing novel RNAi therapeutics and providing its leading lipid nanoparticle delivery technology to pharmaceutical partners. Tekmira has been working in the field of nucleic acid delivery for over a decade and has broad intellectual property covering LNPs. Further information about Tekmira can be found at www.tekmirapharm.com. Tekmira is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Source

Clinical Trial Information

  • A Phase 1 Dose Escalation Study to Determine the Safety, Pharmacokinetics, and Pharmacodynamics of Intravenous TKM-080301 [a/k/a TKM-PLK1 or PLK1 SNALP] in Patients With Advanced Solid Tumors [or Lymphomas], ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT01262235. [Note: This clinical trial summary relates to the ongoing Phase 1 TKM-PLK1  solid tumor clinical trial. We will post the second Phase 1 TKM-PLK1 clinical trial summary with respect to primary liver cancer and liver metastases once it becomes publicly available]
Additional Information
  • Wang J, et al. Delivery of siRNA therapeutics: barriers and carriers. AAPS J. 2010 Dec;12(4):492-503. Epub 2010 Jun 11. Review. PubMed PMID: 20544328; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2977003.

Outside-the-Body Filtration Device May Reduce Ovarian Cancer Cells In Abdominal Fluid

A paper published in the January issue of the journal Nanomedicine could provide the foundation for a new ovarian cancer treatment option — one that would use an outside-the-body filtration device to remove a large portion of the free-floating cancer cells that often create secondary tumors.

Schematic shows how fluids containing ovarian cancer cells could be removed from the body, treated with magnetic nanoparticles to remove the cells, then returned to the body. (Courtesy of Ken Scarberry)

Magnetic nanoparticles suspended in a liquid are attracted to a magnet. The nanoparticles could be attached to cancer cells and then removed from the body with magnetic filtration. (Credit: Gary Meek)

A paper published in the January issue of the journal Nanomedicine could provide the foundation for a new ovarian cancer treatment option — one that would use an outside-the-body filtration device to remove a large portion of the free-floating cancer cells that often create secondary tumors.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have formed a startup company and are working with a medical device firm to design a prototype treatment system that would use magnetic nanoparticles engineered to capture cancer cells. Added to fluids removed from a patient’s abdomen, the magnetic nanoparticles would latch onto the free-floating cancer cells, allowing both the nanoparticles and cancer cells to be removed by magnetic filters before the fluids are returned to the patient’s body.

In mice with free-floating ovarian cancer cells, a single treatment with an early prototype of the nanoparticle-magnetic filtration system captured enough of the cancer cells that the treated mice lived nearly a third longer than untreated ones. The researchers expect multiple treatments to extend the longevity benefit, though additional research will be needed to document that — and determine the best treatment options.

“Almost no one dies from primary ovarian cancer,” said Dr. John McDonald, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Biology and chief research scientist of Atlanta’s Ovarian Cancer Institute. “You can remove the primary cancer, but the problem is metastasis. A good deal of the metastasis in ovarian cancer comes from cancer cells sloughing off into the abdominal cavity and spreading the disease that way.”

The removal system being developed by McDonald and postdoctoral fellow Ken Scarberry — who is also CEO of startup company Sub-Micro — should slow tumor progression in humans. It may reduce the number of free-floating cancer cells enough that other treatments, and the body’s own immune system, could keep the disease under control.

Professor John McDonald (standing) and postdoctoral fellow Ken Scarberry examine statistical data from their study of a potential new treatment option for ovarian cancer. (Credit: Gary Meek)

“If you can reduce metastasis, you can improve the lifespan of the person with the disease and get a better chance of treating it effectively,” said McDonald. “One goal is to make cancer a chronic disease that can be effectively treated over an extended period of time. If we can’t cure it, perhaps we can help people to live with it.”

Earlier in vitro studies published by the authors of the Nanomedicine paper showed that the magnetic nanoparticles could selectively remove human ovarian cancer cells from ascites fluid, which builds up in the peritoneal cavities of ovarian cancer patients. The nanoparticles are engineered with ligands that allow them to selectively attach to cancer cells.

The researchers believe that treating fluid removed from the body avoids potential toxicity problems that could result from introducing the nanoparticles into the body, though further studies are needed to confirm that the treatment would have no adverse effects.

The recently reported study in Nanomedicine used three sets of female mice to study the benefit of the nanoparticle-magnetic filtration system. Each mouse was injected with approximately 500,000 murine ovarian cancer cells, which multiply rapidly — each cell doubling within approximately 15 hours.

In the experimental group, the researchers — who included research scientist Roman Mezencev — removed fluid from the abdomens of the mice immediately after injection of the cancer cells. They then added the magnetic nanoparticles to the fluid, allowed them to mix, then magnetically removed the nanoparticles along with the attached cancer cells before returning the fluid. The steps were repeated six times for each mouse.

One control group received no treatment at all, while a second control group underwent the same treatment as the experimental group — but without the magnetic nanoparticles. Mice in the two control groups survived a median of 37 days, while the treated mice lived 12 days longer — a 32 percent increase in longevity.

Though much more research must be done before the technique can be tested in humans, McDonald and Scarberry envision a system very similar to what kidney dialysis patients now use, but with a buffer solution circulated through the peritoneal cavity to pick up the cancer cells.

“What we are developing is akin to hemofiltration or peritoneal dialysis in which the patient could come into a clinic and be hooked up to the device a couple of times a week,” said Scarberry. “The treatment is not heavily invasive, so it could be repeated often.”

The new treatment could be used in conjunction with existing chemotherapy and radiation. Reducing the number of free-floating cancer cells could allow a reduction in chemotherapy, which often has debilitating side effects, Scarberry said. The new treatment system could be used to capture spilled cancer cells immediately after surgery on a primary tumor.

The researchers hope to have a prototype circulation and filtration device ready for testing within three years. After that will come studies into the best treatment regimen, examining such issues as the number of magnetic nanoparticles to use, the number of treatments and treatment spacing. If those are successful, the company will work with the FDA to design human clinical trials.

The researchers also studying how their magnetic nanoparticles could be engineered to capture ovarian cancer stem cells, which are not affected by existing chemotherapy. Removing those cells could help eliminate a potent source of new cancer cells.

The research has been supported by the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), the Ovarian Cancer Institute, the Robinson Family Foundation and the Deborah Nash Harris Endowment. A member of Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) startup accelerator program and a GRA VentureLab company, Sub-Micro has also raised private funding to support its prototype development.

Challenges ahead include ensuring that nanoparticles cannot bypass the filtration system to enter the body, and controlling the risk of infection caused by opening the peritoneal cavity.

Beyond cancer, the researchers believe their approach could be useful for treating other diseases in which a reduction in circulating cancer cells or virus particles could be useful. Using magnetic nanoparticles engineered to capture HIV could help reduce viral content in the bloodstream, for instance.

“A technology like this has many different possibilities,” said Scarberry. “We are currently developing the technology to control the metastatic spread of ovarian cancer, but once we have a device that can efficiently and effectively isolate cancer cells from circulating fluids, including blood, we would have other opportunities.”

Sources:

Additional Information:

Genentech Announces Positive Results of Avastin Phase III Study in Women with Advanced Ovarian Cancer

Genentech announces positive results of Avastin Phase III study (GOG 218) in women with advanced ovarian cancer. The study showed that women who continued maintenance use of Avastin alone, after receiving Avastin in combination with chemotherapy, lived longer without the disease worsening compared to those who received chemotherapy alone. This is the first Phase III study of an anti-angiogenic therapy in advanced ovarian cancer to meet its primary endpoint.

Tumor angiogenesis is the proliferation of a network of blood vessels that penetrates into cancerous growths, supplying nutrients and oxygen and removing waste products. Tumor angiogenesis actually starts with cancerous tumor cells releasing molecules that send signals to surrounding normal host tissue. This signaling activates certain genes in the host tissue that, in turn, make proteins to encourage growth of new blood vessels. Photo credit: NCI

Genentech, Inc., a wholly owned member of the Roche Group , today announced that a Phase III study showed the combination of Avastin® (bevacizumab) and chemotherapy followed by maintenance use of Avastin alone increased the time women with previously untreated advanced ovarian cancer lived without the disease worsening (progression-free survival or PFS), compared to chemotherapy alone. A preliminary assessment of safety noted adverse events previously observed in pivotal trials of Avastin. Data from the study will be submitted for presentation at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting, June 4 – 8, 2010.

In the three-arm study, known as Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG) 0218, women with newly diagnosed advanced ovarian cancer who already had surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible were randomized to receive one of the following:

  • Arm 1: Placebo in combination with carboplatin and paclitaxel chemotherapy followed by placebo alone, for a total of up to 15 months of therapy
  • Arm 2: Avastin in combination with carboplatin and paclitaxel chemotherapy followed by placebo alone, for a total of up to 15 months of therapy
  • Arm 3: Avastin in combination with carboplatin and paclitaxel chemotherapy followed by the maintenance use of Avastin alone, for a total of up to 15 months of therapy.

The study showed that women who continued maintenance use of Avastin alone, after receiving Avastin in combination with chemotherapy (Arm 3), lived longer without the disease worsening compared to those who received chemotherapy alone. Women who received Avastin in combination with chemotherapy, but did not continue maintenance use of Avastin alone (Arm 2), did not live longer without the disease worsening compared to chemotherapy alone.

“Additional medicines are urgently needed for women with newly diagnosed advanced ovarian cancer, as most women’s cancer will worsen after their initial treatment,” said Hal Barron, M.D., F.A.C.C., Executive Vice President, Global Development and Chief Medical Officer. “We are encouraged by the positive findings of this study, which highlight the importance of continuing maintenance Avastin after combining Avastin with chemotherapy in this setting. We will discuss these results with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

Robert Allen Burger, MD, FACOG, FACS, Fox Chase Cancer Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“This is good news for women with ovarian, primary peritoneal or fallopian tube cancers,” said GOG 0218 study chair Robert Burger, M.D., Fox-Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “This study showed that after initial surgery, the combination of Avastin and chemotherapy followed by extended treatment with Avastin improves progression-free survival in women with newly diagnosed advanced tumors.”

The trial is sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between the NCI and Genentech, and is being conducted by a network of researchers led by the GOG.

Avastin is being studied worldwide in more than 450 clinical trials for multiple types of cancer, including approximately 25 ongoing clinical trials in the United States for women with various stages of ovarian cancer.

About Ovarian Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among American women. In 2009 an estimated 21,500 women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer and approximately 14,500 died from the disease in the U.S. The disease causes more deaths than any other gynecologic cancer, and the American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 70 percent of women with advanced disease will die from it within five years.

Ovarian cancer is associated with high levels of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), a protein associated with tumor growth and spread. Studies have shown a correlation between a high level of VEGF and a poorer prognosis in women with ovarian cancer. Currently, treatment options for women with this disease are limited to surgery and chemotherapy.

About the GOG 0218 Study

GOG 0218 is an international, multicenter, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase III study in 1,873 women with previously untreated advanced epithelial ovarian, primary peritoneal or fallopian tube carcinoma. The study evaluates Avastin (5 cycles) in combination with carboplatin and paclitaxel chemotherapy (6 cycles) compared to carboplatin and paclitaxel chemotherapy alone (6 cycles). The trial is also designed to assess the maintenance use of Avastin alone following the initial combined regimen of Avastin and chemotherapy (for a total of up to 15 months of therapy), compared to carboplatin and paclitaxel chemotherapy alone (6 cycles).

The primary endpoint of the study is PFS as assessed by trial investigators. Secondary and exploratory endpoints of the study include overall survival, PFS by independent review, objective response rate, safety, quality of life measures and analysis of patient tumor and blood samples.

Detailed safety assessments are ongoing. A preliminary assessment of safety performed by the GOG identified Avastin-related serious adverse events noted in previous pivotal studies, including fatal neutropenic infection and gastrointestinal perforation. The full study results, including safety information, will be presented at a future medical meeting.

About Avastin

Avastin is a solution for intravenous infusion and is a biologic antibody designed to specifically bind to a protein called VEGF. VEGF plays an important role throughout the lifecycle of the tumor to develop and maintain blood vessels, a process known as angiogenesis. Avastin interferes with the tumor blood supply by directly binding to the VEGF protein to prevent interactions with receptors on blood vessel cells. Avastin does not bind to receptors on normal or cancer cells. The tumor blood supply is thought to be critical to a tumor’s ability to grow and spread in the body (metastasize). For more information about angiogenesis, visit http://www.gene.com.

Boxed WARNINGS and Additional Important Safety Information

People treated with Avastin may experience side effects. In clinical trials, some people treated with Avastin experienced serious and sometimes fatal side effects, including:

Gastrointestinal (GI) perforation: Treatment with Avastin can result in the development of a potentially serious side effect called GI perforation, which is the development of a hole in the stomach, small intestine or large intestine. In clinical trials, this side effect occurred in more people who received Avastin than in the comparison group (0.3 percent to 2.4 percent). In some cases, GI perforation resulted in fatality.

Surgery and wound healing problems: Treatment with Avastin can lead to slow or incomplete wound healing (for example, when a surgical incision has trouble healing or staying closed). In some cases, this event resulted in fatality. Surgery and wound healing problems occurred more often in people who received Avastin than in the comparison group. Avastin therapy should not be started for at least 28 days after surgery and until the surgical wound is fully healed. The length of time between stopping Avastin and having voluntary surgery without the risk of having surgery and wound healing problems following surgery has not been determined.

Severe bleeding: Treatment with Avastin can result in serious bleeding, including coughing up blood, bleeding in the stomach, vomiting of blood, bleeding in the brain, nosebleeds and vaginal bleeding. These events occurred up to five times more often in people who received Avastin. Across cancer types, 1.2 percent to 4.6 percent of people who received Avastin experienced severe to fatal bleeding. People who have recently coughed up blood (greater than or equal to a half teaspoon of red blood) or have serious bleeding should not receive Avastin.

In clinical trials for different cancer types, there were additional serious and sometimes fatal side effects that occurred in more people who received Avastin than in those in the comparison group. The formation of an abnormal passage from parts of the body to another part (non-GI fistula formation) was seen in 0.3 percent or less of people. Severe to life-threatening stroke or heart problems were seen in 2.4 percent of people. Too much protein in the urine, which led to kidney problems, was seen in less than 1 percent of people. Additional serious side effects that occurred in more people who received Avastin than those in the comparison group included severe to life-threatening high blood pressure, which was seen in 5 percent to 18 percent of people, and nervous system and vision disturbances (reversible posterior leukoencephalopathy syndrome), which was seen in less than 0.1 percent of people. Infusion reactions with the first dose of Avastin were uncommon and occurred in less than 3 percent of people and severe reactions occurred in 0.2 percent of people.

Common side effects that occurred in more than 10 percent of people who received Avastin for different cancer types, and at least twice the rate of the comparison group, were nosebleeds, headache, high blood pressure, inflammation of the nose, too much protein in the urine, taste change, dry skin, rectal bleeding, tear production disorder, back pain and inflammation of the skin (exfoliative dermatitis). Across all trials, treatment with Avastin was permanently stopped in 8.4 percent to 21 percent of people because of side effects.

Avastin may impair fertility. Patients who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant should talk with their doctor about the potential risk of loss of the pregnancy or the potential risk of Avastin to the fetus during and following Avastin therapy, and the need to continue an effective birth control method for at least six months following the last dose of Avastin.

For full Prescribing Information and Boxed WARNINGS on Avastin please visit http://www.avastin.com.

About Genentech

Founded more than 30 years ago, Genentech is a leading biotechnology company that discovers, develops, manufactures and commercializes medicines to treat patients with serious or life-threatening medical conditions. The company, a wholly owned member of the Roche Group, has headquarters in South San Francisco, California. For additional information about the company, please visit http://www.gene.com.

About The Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG)

The Gynecologic Oncology Group is a non-profit organization of more than 300 member institutions with the purpose of promoting excellence in the quality and integrity of clinical and basic scientific research in the field of Gynecologic malignancies. The Group is committed to maintaining the highest standards in the clinical trial development, execution, analysis and distribution of results. Continuous evaluation of our processes is utilized in order to constantly improve the quality of patient care.

GOG receives support from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

Sources:

“Decisions Are Made By Those Who Show Up”*

Responding to a threat of a funding reduction to the Department of Defense’s Ovarian Cancer Research Program, during the last week of October the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance urged advocates to contact their Members of Congress to appeal to the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee to increase funding for the research program. As a result of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance’s advocacy efforts, 14 Senators and 77 Representatives showed their opposition to the funding cut by signing a Dear Colleague letter sent to the Subcommittee Tuesday, November 3, 2009. …

Advocates Work To Prevent Slash In Ovarian Cancer Research Funding

Responding to a threat of a funding reduction to the Department of Defense’s Ovarian Cancer Research Program, during the last week of October the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance (OCNA) urged advocates to contact their Members of Congress to appeal to the Appropriations Defense Subcommittee to increase funding for the research program.

OCNAadvocates1

Advocates lobbying on Capitol Hill for increased funds for ovarian cancer research. (Photo: Ovarian Cancer National Alliance)

As a result of OCNA’s advocacy efforts, 14 Senators and 77 Representatives showed their opposition to the funding cut by signing a Dear Colleague letter sent to the Subcommittee Tuesday, November 3, 2009.

The Dear Colleague letter, written by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), requested that the Subcommittee allocate the $25 million set forth in the U.S. House of Representatives‘ version of the Defense bill, and not the $10 million outlined in the U.S. Senate version of the bill. The Senate funding level represented a 50 percent reduction from the $20 million appropriated in fiscal year (FY) 2009.

The date of the conference subcommittee meeting has yet to be announced.

Established in 1997, the Department of Defense’s Ovarian Cancer Research Program has received $10 million in funding annually from FY 1998 until FY 2008. However, for FY 2009, the program’s funding was doubled to $20 million. The Ovarian Cancer Research Program works to eliminate ovarian cancer by conducting innovative, multidisciplinary research on early detection, screening and treatment of ovarian cancer.

To read the full text of the letter and see if your elected officials signed, please click here.

The Ovarian Cancer Action Network periodically sends out action alerts to notify advocates of pressing issues that need constituent support. To sign up, please click here.

About the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance

OCNA is the advocacy arm of the ovarian cancer movement. OCNA works with federal policy makers, including the  U.S. President, U.S. Congress, and federal agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). OCNA commits its resources to be a voice for ovarian cancer survivors and significantly reduce the number of deaths from this deadly disease by advocating at the federal level for the following:

• Adequate and sustained funding for ovarian cancer research and awareness programs, and

• Legislation that improves quality of life and access to care for ovarian cancer patients.

Since 1997, when OCNA was founded, death rates from ovarian cancer have not significantly changed. However, OCNA has worked to increase funding for ovarian cancer research, with the goal that this funding will support breakthroughs to help detect ovarian cancer early, treat it more thoroughly, and allow women with ovarian cancer to survive, and thrive.

OCNA has worked to ensure that (i) necessary treatments are covered by Medicare, (ii) drugs and tests on the market are safe and effective, and (iii) federal policy makers are aware of the importance of the ovarian cancer community.

Join OCNA to fight for women with ovarian cancer, and policies that help support them and their families.

Source: Advocates Work To Prevent Slash In Ovarian Cancer Research Funding, News Update, Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, November 11, 2009.

*Title Quote:  Fictional U.S. President Josiah Edward Bartlet, What Kind of Day Has It Been Episode, The West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin, originally aired May 17, 2000 [Sorkin attributes his teleplay quote to Woody Allen (“80% of success in life is just showing up”)].

FDA Clears Vermillion’s “OVA1” Test To Determine Likelihood of Ovarian Cancer In Women With Pelvic Mass

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cleared a test that can help detect ovarian cancer in a pelvic mass that is already known to require surgery. The test, called OVA1, helps patients and health care professionals decide what type of surgery should be done and by whom.

First Lab Test That Can Indicate Ovarian Cancer Prior To Biopsy Or Exploratory Surgery

U.S. Food & Drug Administration

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the OVA1™ Test, the first blood test that, prior to surgery, can help physicians determine if a woman is at risk for a malignant pelvic mass. OVA1 is the first FDA-cleared laboratory test that can indicate the likelihood of ovarian cancer with high sensitivity prior to biopsy or exploratory surgery, even if radiological test results fail to indicate malignancy.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the OVA1™ Test [formerly, the Ovarian Tumor Triage Test], the first blood test that, prior to surgery, can help physicians determine if a woman is at risk for a malignant pelvic mass. OVA1 is the first FDA-cleared laboratory test that can indicate the likelihood of ovarian cancer with high sensitivity prior to biopsy or exploratory surgery, even if radiological test results fail to indicate malignancy. The test was developed by Vermillion, Inc. (formerly, Ciphergen Biosystems, Inc. ), a molecular diagnostics company, in cooperation with Quest Diagnostics, the world’s leading provider of cancer diagnostics. Quest Diagnostics, which is a long-time investor in research and development of the OVA1 technology, has exclusive rights to offer the test to the clinical reference laboratory market in the U.S. for three years.

“When combined with other clinical information, the OVA1 biomarker panel can help assess the likelihood of malignancy of an ovarian tumor before surgery and facilitate decisions about referral to a gynecologic oncologist,” said Frederick R. Ueland, M.D., principal investigator of the prospective, multi-center OVA1 clinical trial. Dr. Ueland is an associate professor gynecologic oncology at the University of Kentucky‘s Markey Cancer Center.

The OVA1 Test is an in vitro diagnostic multivariate index [assay] (IVDMIA) test that combines the results of five immunoassays using a proprietary unique algorithm to produce a single numerical score indicating a women’s likelihood of malignancy. The OVA1 Test provides a new option in the pre-operative evaluation to help physicians assess if a pelvic mass is benign or malignant in order to help determine whether to refer a woman to a gynecologic oncologist for surgery. Numerous clinical practice guidelines recommend that women with ovarian cancer be under the care of a gynecologic oncologist. However, only an estimated one third of women who undergo surgery for possible ovarian cancer are referred to these specialist surgeons for their surgery.(1)

Vermillion received the Society for Gynecologic Oncologists (SGO) Basic Science Poster Award for an abstract on the performance of its OVA1 Test presented at SGO’s 38th Annual Meeting on Women’s Cancer in 2007. In reviewing the test application, the FDA evaluated results of a prospective, double-blind clinical trial which included 27 demographically mixed sites representative of institutions where ovarian tumor subjects may undergo a gynecological examination.

“Surgery in the hands of a gynecologic oncologist is usually associated with more favorable patient outcomes,” said Jon R. Cohen, M.D., chief medical officer and senior vice president, Quest Diagnostics. “Physicians often do not know if a woman’s pelvic mass is malignant or benign until she undergoes surgery. The OVA1 Test is the first FDA-cleared blood test to help clinicians determine whether to refer a woman to a gynecologic oncologist or have a gynecologic oncologist present at the time of surgery. We believe this test will help drive more favorable patient outcomes.”

“Unfortunately, advances in ovarian cancer diagnosis and treatment are few and far between. It is fitting that September, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, marks FDA’s clearance of OVA1, a test that represents an important step forward toward improved outcomes,” said Gail S. Page, executive chairperson of the board of directors of Vermillion. “Quest Diagnostics had the foresight to recognize the potential value of this novel multivariate assay and supported its development. We look forward to collaborating to bring this new diagnostic option to the many women who will benefit from specialist care.”

Ueland

"When combined with other clinical information, the OVA1 biomarker panel can help assess the likelihood of malignancy of an ovarian tumor before surgery and facilitate decisions about referral to a gynecologic oncologist," said Frederick R. Ueland, M.D., principal investigator of the prospective, multi-center OVA1 clinical trial. Dr. Ueland is an associate professor gynecologic oncology at the University of Kentucky's Markey Cancer Center.

The FDA clearance of OVA1 makes Quest Diagnostics the only diagnostic testing company to offer FDA cleared tests for ovarian cancer in the pre- and post-surgical settings. In addition to offering the OVA1 Test, Quest Diagnostics was the first laboratory company to provide a new lab test that the FDA cleared in the third quarter of 2008 as an aid for monitoring for recurrence of epithelial ovarian cancer.

The OVA1 Test will be available for physician use in the fourth quarter of this year.

Ovarian cancer is the leading cause of death from gynecologic cancers in the United States and the fifth-leading cause of cancer deaths in women.(2) Approximately 21,600 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2009, and approximately 14,600 women will die of the disease.(3)

About the OVA1 Test

The OVA1 Test is a qualitative serum test that combines the results of five immunoassays into a single numerical score. It is indicated for women who meet the following criteria: over age 18, ovarian adnexal mass present for which surgery is planned, and not yet referred to an oncologist. The test utilizes five well-established biomarkers — Transthyretin (TT or prealbumin), Apolipoprotein A-1 (Apo A-1), Beta2-Microglobulin (Beta2M), Transferrin (Tfr) and Cancer Antigen 125 (CA 125 II) — and a proprietary algorithm to determine the likelihood of malignancy in women with pelvic mass for whom surgery is planned.

The OVA1 Test is an aid to further assess the likelihood that malignancy is present when the physician’s independent clinical and radiological evaluation does not indicate malignancy. The test should not be used without an independent clinical/radiological evaluation and is not intended to be a screening test or to determine whether a patient should proceed to surgery. Incorrect use of the OVA1 Test carries the risk of unnecessary testing, surgery, and/or delayed diagnosis.

About Vermillion

Vermillion, Inc. is dedicated to the discovery, development and commercialization of novel high-value diagnostic tests that help physicians diagnose, treat and improve outcomes for patients. Vermillion, along with its prestigious scientific collaborators, has diagnostic programs in oncology, hematology, cardiology and women’s health. Vermillion is based in Fremont, California. Additional information about Vermillion can be found on the Web at www.vermillion.com.

About Quest Diagnostics

Quest Diagnostics is the world’s leading provider of diagnostic testing, information and services that patients and doctors need to make better healthcare decisions. The company offers the broadest access to diagnostic testing services through its network of laboratories and patient service centers, and provides interpretive consultation through its extensive medical and scientific staff. Quest Diagnostics is a pioneer in developing innovative diagnostic tests and advanced healthcare information technology solutions that help improve patient care. Additional company information is available at www.QuestDiagnostics.com.

(1) Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 98, No. 3, February 1, 2006

(2) Greenlee RT, Murray T, Bolden S, Wingo PA. Cancer statistics, 2000. CA Cancer J Clin. 2000;50(1):7-33

(3) 2009 American Cancer Society [Leading Sites of New Cancer Cases and Deaths—2009 Estimates]

Contacts:
Quest Diagnostics:
Media: Wendy Bost 973-520-2800
Investors: Kathleen Valentine 973-520-2900

Vermillion:
Jill Totenberg, he Totenberg Group Tel: 212 994 7363
jtotenberg@totenberggroup.com

Select FDA Comments:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today cleared a test that can help detect ovarian cancer in a pelvic mass that is already known to require surgery. The test, called OVA1, helps patients and health care professionals decide what type of surgery should be done and by whom.

OVA1 identifies some women who will benefit from referral to a gynecological oncologist for their surgery, despite negative results from other clinical and radiographic tests for ovarian cancer. If other test results suggest cancer, referral to an oncologist is appropriate even with a negative OVA1 result.

OVA1 should be used by primary care physicians or gynecologists as an adjunctive test to complement, not replace, other diagnostic and clinical procedures.

OVA1 uses a blood sample to test for levels of five proteins that change due to ovarian cancer. The test combines the five separate results into a single numerical score between 0 and 10 to indicate the likelihood that the pelvic mass is benign or malignant.

OVA1 is intended only for women, 18 years and older, who are already selected for surgery because of their pelvic mass. It is not intended for ovarian cancer screening or for a definitive diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Interpreting the test result requires knowledge of whether the woman is pre- or post-menopausal.

Sources:

To Fight Cancer, Know The Enemy

An Op-Ed entitled “To Fight Cancer, Know the Enemy” was published in The New York Times on August 6, 2009.  The author of the Op-Ed was James D. Watson, Ph.D.  James Watson co-discovered the DNA double helix structure; a discovery for which he received the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. In the article, Watson states his belief that beating cancer is now a realistic ambition, and he makes several suggestions designed to ensure that victory.

On August 6, 2009, an Op-Ed entitled To Fight Cancer, Know the Enemy was published in The New York Times (NYT).  The author of the article was James D. Watson, Ph.D. James Watson co-discovered the DNA double helix structure; a discovery for which he received the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.  Dr. Watson is the Chancellor Emeritus of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and is generally considered the father of molecular biology. Throughout most of his career, James Watson’s novel scientific ideas generated great controversy among, and resistance from, many members of the scientific community.  The suggestions posed by James Watson in his August 6th NYT Op-Ed are likely no exception.

Watson begins the Op-Ed by suggesting an ambitious, yet optimistic, goal in the area of cancer research:

“The National Cancer Institute, which has overseen American efforts on researching and combating cancers since 1971, should take on an ambitious new goal for the next decade:  the development of new drugs that will provide lifelong cures for many, if not all, major cancers.  Beating cancer now is a realistic ambition because, at long last, we largely know its true genetic and chemical characteristics. …”

James D. Watson

James D. Watson, Ph.D. is the Chancellor Emeritus of the world-renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Dr. Watson co-discovered DNA's double helix structure; a discovery for which he received the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times on August 6, 2009, Dr. Watson states: "...Beating cancer now is a realistic ambition because, at long last, we largely know its true genetic and chemical characteristics."

Despite President Nixon’s declaration of  war on cancer in 1971, Watson states that the goal of “beating cancer” was not possible prior to the year 2000, because researchers did not possess the necessary scientific understanding of cancer molecular biology. Extensive details about specific cancers only became known after the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project, says Watson. Researchers have identified most of the major cellular pathways through which cancer-inducing signals move through cells, and Watson notes that 20 or so signal-blocking drugs are in human clinical testing. By way of example, Watson highlights the breast cancer drug Herceptin, which is used to fight an aggressive form of breast cancer. Herceptin was approved initially by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in 1998, and today represents the standard of care in treating so-called “HER-2 positive” breast cancer.

With this scientific background, Dr. Watson outlines several suggested changes to the current U.S. cancer research paradigm. He believes that the various changes listed below will give the nation a fighting chance to win the war on cancer.

Change FDA Regulations To Allow Combination Testing of New Cancer Drugs Which Are Ineffective As Monotherapies.

Noting the lack of new cancer drugs that lead to lifelong cures, Watson explains that there are many types of cancer-causing “genetic drivers” within a single cancer cell. Although an analysis of several cancer genetic drivers may allow a doctor to prescribe more personalized chemotherapy treatments for the patient, Watson believes that use of drugs against one genetic cancer driver would simply lead to the emergence of increasingly destructive second and third drivers due to the inherent genetic instability of cancer cells.  Accordingly, Watson concludes that most anticancer drugs will not reach their full potential unless they are given in combination to shut down multiple cancer genetic drivers within a cancer cell simultaneously.

Dr. Watson, however, is quick to note that current FDA regulations effectively prohibit combination testing of new cancer drugs that, when administered alone, prove ineffective.  Thus, Watson concludes that current FDA regulations must be amended to allow combination testing of new cancer drugs that prove ineffective as monotherapies.

Better Understand The Chemical (Rather Than Genetic) Makeup of Cancer Cells

Dr. Watson believes that researchers should shift the current focus of cancer research away from decoding the genetic characteristics of cancer, and obtain a better understanding of the chemical reactions that occur within cancer cells. This suggestion, Watson explains, is based upon a 1924 discovery made by the German biochemist (and 1931 Nobel Laureate) Otto Warburg.  During experimentation, Warburg observed that cancer cells, irrespective of whether they grow in the presence or absence of oxygen, produce large amounts of lactic acid. Approximately one year ago, the significance of Warburg’s observation was revealed, says Watson. The metabolism of all proliferating cells (including cancer cells) is largely directed toward the synthesis of cellular building blocks from the breakdown of glucose. Based upon this recent discovery, Dr. Watson concludes that glucose breakdown runs faster in growing cells then in differentiated cells (i.e., cells that stop growing and perform specialized functions within the body).

The turbocharged breakdown of glucose in growing cells is attributable to growth-promoting signal molecules that effectively turn up the levels of transporter proteins which move glucose molecules into the cell, explains Watson. With this important discovery in hand, Watson suggests that researchers determine whether new drugs that specifically inhibit the key enzymes involved in the breakdown of glucose can produce an anticancer effect. Because this determination requires a better understanding of the chemical makeup of cancer cells, Watson believes that biochemists (rather than molecular biologists) will again move to the forefront of cancer research.

NCI Should Fund Smaller Biotechnology Companies & Increase Its Funding to Major Research-Oriented Cancer Centers

The next issue addressed by Dr. Watson relates to the lack of funding available to small biotechnology companies, which are generally engaged in highly innovative research. In the past, the requisite funding of these companies was provided by venture capitalists (VCs), Watson notes.  The level of VC funding required by small biotech companies is not currently available due to the severe U.S. economic downturn. To resolve this critical capital funding issue, Watson suggests that the National Cancer Institute (NCI) fund small biotech companies. This action, Watson believes, will allow the biotech companies to move drug discoveries from the laboratory into human clinical testing on an accelerated basis. In tandem with funding small biotech companies, Dr. Watson also requests NCI to increase its funding to major research-oriented cancer centers that engage in “low probability-high payoff” research projects, which are generally turned down by large pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

President Obama Should Appoint A Strong Leader To The Directorship of NCI

In 1971, the U.S. Congress provided the president, rather than the head of the National Institutes of Health, with the authority to appoint the NCI director.  Watson characterizes NCI in his Op-Ed as “an outpost of the White House” that has “… become a largely rudderless ship in dire need of a bold captain who will settle only for total victory.”  To resolve this issue, Dr. Watson advises President Barack Obama to appoint a strong leader, from among the nation’s best cancer researchers, to the directorship of NCI.  As part of this new leadership structure, Watson also recommends that NCI recruit a seasoned pharmaceutical developer who can radically increase the speed of anticancer drug development and human clinical testing.

Application Of Sun Tzu’s Strategies On The Art Of War To Cancer Research

Sun Tzu

A statue of the iconic Chinese military leader Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu wrote the earliest -- and still the most revered -- military treatise in the world. This 6th century BC masterpiece is best known to most of us as "The Art of War."

At the conclusion of his Op-Ed, Watson acknowledges that his views will provoke rebuttals from prominent scientists who believe that it is not the right time to wage war on cancer. Moreover, Watson anticipates that many scientists will recommend that, until victory is more certain, the U.S. should not expend large sums of money on cancer research. Watson admits that money alone will not win the war on cancer, but he emphasizes that victory over cancer will not come ” from biding our time.” As part of the Op-Ed title, Watson uses the phrase “know the enemy;” a phrase commonly attributed to the ancient Chinese military leader Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu wrote the earliest — and still the most revered — military treatise in the world.  This 6th century BC masterpiece is best known to most of us as The Art of War.  The clever use of the phrase “know the enemy” by Dr. Watson may suggest that the enemy is indeed cancer, and perhaps, ourselves as represented by the current U.S. cancer research paradigm.

In chapter III of The Art of War, entitled Attack by Stratagem, Sun Tzu describes the dual knowledge that one must possess to achieve ultimate victory in war:

“…If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. …”

To follow the advice of James Watson is to better know ourselves and the formidable enemy known as “cancer.” Will Watson’s advice allow us to achieve ultimate victory in the war on cancer? Perhaps. Only time (and appropriate research funding) will tell.

Source: To Fight Cancer, Know The Enemy, by James D. Watson, Op-Ed, The New York Times, August 6, 2009.