Denis Leary may turn out to be disappointed. His 1992 comedy album, "No Cure for Cancer," may be proven to be wrong by modern science. There are dozens of pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that are actively seeking cures for cancer -- each has its own specialty. One of the coolest treatments that I have come across is entering Phase II trials. It's called Advexin, and the company that is developing it is Introgen Therapeutics
Advexin's already gone into Phase II trials (during which the therapy is tested on patients with the disease) for breast, esophagus, and lung cancers, and Phase III for head and neck cancers. Each of these has a relatively high rate of mortality. The latest Advexin trial is for mouth and throat cancers, and it delivers the drug using, of all things, a mouthwash.
One of the problems with many cancer therapies is that the treatment is sometimes nearly as bad as the disease. Had you suggested to me years ago that cancer treatments would be well advanced by this time, I would have readily believed you. But the thought that some deadly forms of cancer might be treated topically, and not invasively, is mind-blowing.
Every cell in the human body has a protein called p53, also known as the "cellular policeman," which detects whether something is amiss in a cell. If so, p53 causes the cell to destroy itself. With many forms of cancer, this process is suppressed, so cells that ought to kill themselves fail to do so. Tumors form when these mutated cells multiply instead. Medicine has long understood the role of rapid reproduction of cells in cancer, but the role of the failure of cells to police themselves has only recently become more understood.
Finding a way to reintroduce p53 to mutated cells would allow them to do what nature intended them to do in the first place -- put themselves to sleep. This could be substantially less toxic than existing therapies that destroy both cancerous and healthy cells indiscriminately.
Introgen's rights include an adenoviral delivery system for p53. Just in the way that viruses introduce influenza, malaria, or other diseases to a system, some can also be altered to introduce p53.
Introgen's financial statements are awful. Like most biotechnology companies, it has minimal revenues prior to approval of its drugs, though it does have plenty of cash and minimal debt. But the delivery system is so ingenious that I was intrigued enough to ask a Georgetown University oncologist, Dr. Jimmy Hwang, what he knew about p53, Advexin, and Introgen.
Dr. Hwang explained that he found it interesting that there is substantially more information about this therapy in business publications than in medical journals, and noted that a drug's passing to Phase II only means "that the drug is safe." Still, he called the reintroduction of p53 to be a sort of Holy Grail for cancer treatment. From an investment standpoint, Introgen most likely falls under the low confidence/high potential return category.
Still, the thought of a swish that can kill cancer cells is something I find completely fascinating.
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