Research offers hope for cancer victims

David Hyland

University researchers unveiled an experimental prostate cancer treatment Wednesday that kills only cancer cells without damaging other healthy cells.
The lead researcher and University professor, Akhouri Sinha, presented his findings at the American Association for Cancer Research in New Orleans.
Though the majority of men with prostate cancer are over the age of 55, it is estimated one out of five men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetimes, said researcher and University professor Michael Wilson. The cancer is believed to be linked to aging as well as environmental conditions.
According to the American Cancer Society, 184,500 American men have been stricken with prostate cancer this year; experts estimate 39,200 will die from the disease. It is the second leading cause of cancer in men.
Sinha, a professor of genetics and cell biology, is also a researcher at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis. The project, which entailed treating mice with prostate cancer cells, was a collaboration between the University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
The treatment focuses on proteins only produced by prostate cancer cells called prostate-specific antigens. The antigen, which serves as a marker, can be found on the outer membranes of prostate cells.
Researchers injected the mice with a molecular combination that contains an anti-cancer drug, called “5FU,” and an antibody for the antigen.
Drawn like a magnet, the antigen/drug molecule goes straight to the antigen in a cancerous cell. Once the antibody destroys an antigen, the drug kills only the cancer cells.
Wilson, who works at the medical center as well as in the University’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, said the treatment could kill cancer cells both in the prostate and those that have spread from that source.
“I think it’s one of the most effective ways of treating … prostate cancer,” Wilson said.
Most anti-cancer treatments damage the body’s tissues by killing healthy cells in the process of destroying the cancer. Conventional uses of chemotherapeutic drugs kill cells in the lungs, intestinal lining, kidneys and hair follicles.
Initial tests of the treatment began more than three years ago. Researchers are reported to have killed 80 to 90 percent of the prostate cancer cells in the mice.
Barry Quast, assistant scientist in the University’s genetics and cell biology department, said although the treatment is tailored to prostate cancer, the technique could be a model for treatments in other cancers.
“The key would be to look for organ-specific markers, to find a marker that is only specific to the organ that you want to target,” Quast said
Based on the recent mice tests, Wilson said the drug’s negative side effects would be less than conventional treatments.
Despite the promising signs, Sinha and his colleagues still need to test the treatment on human subjects. Along with converting the technique and drugs for human usage, the researchers must get approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
For David Ahmann, president of the Minnesota division of the American Cancer Society, the human tests are a trial by fire for any new cancer treatment.
“I don’t think you can talk about huge breakthroughs until you actually see clinical results in human beings,” Ahmann said. “There are an awful lot of animal tumors we can cure. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to translate that into humans.”
“Let’s hope this isn’t one of them,” he said.