Cancer is a difficult to fight disease on so many fronts.
To begin with, there's no definitive rhyme or reason why one person develops cancer during their lifetime while another person doesn't. There are generally accepted risk factors that suggest whether an individual is at a higher risk of developing cancer in their lifetime, but there's no exact formula that determines whether or not someone will develop cancer.
There are also many different types of cancer, each of which responds differently to treatment depending on a person's genetic makeup and the therapy being offered. In other words, there is no "average" cancer case that physicians will take on, as each person's cancer and treatment is unique. This can make the treatment process quite challenging.
Lastly, cancer takes both a mental and physical toll on patients and their families. According to an analysis conducted by the National Institutes of Health in January 2011, cancer expenditures (diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up) were expected to grow at least 27% between 2010 and 2020 to $158 billion. The NIH also predicted an upper boundary on cancer costs of $207 billion by 2020 if diagnostic tools and cancer drugs continued to become more expensive. Keep in mind this doesn't factor in the economic costs of lost productivity for businesses or the cost of a premature death.
The simple solution is that we need more effective medicines that give cancer patients a genuine chance at long-term survival, indiscriminate of cancer type. It's an easier said than done kind of solution.
However, a study released this past week suggests that a specific cancer target across a myriad of cancer types might be possible, and that developing drugs aimed at inhibiting this target could effectively fight cancer cell proliferation.
A potentially new way to fight cancer?
According to a report in ACS Chemical Biology authored by Liang Xu, associate professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas, targeting a small-molecule protein known as HuR -- a protein known for promoting tumor growth -- could be effective in fighting many types of cancers, including prostate, breast, colon, lung, brain, and pancreatic cancer.
The study observes that HuR was detected in high levels in nearly all cancer types, making it an ideal target for pharmaceutical products. Unfortunately, prior to this study targeting HuR had been believed to be impossible.
Xu and her research team took three-and-a-half years and used an array of diagnostic techniques, such as amplified luminescent proximity homogeneous assay, surface plasmon resonance, and ribonucleoprotein immunoprecipitation assay, to name a few, to study roughly 6,000 compounds. What wound up being left were six promising compounds that could interfere with the HuR to RNA binding process. The report suggests that HuR's binding receptor to RNA is especially tight, meaning disrupting that process isn't going to be an easy task.
What's potentially more intriguing is that HuR is believed to be involved in stem cell pathways, therefore inhibiting HuR could wind up disabling cancer stem cells which are the believed progenitors of tumor metastasis.
Of course, it'd be smart to keep in mind that just because a possible oncoprotein target and potential compounds to fight it have been identified, it could be years before this information translates into clinically testable small-molecule drugs for the biopharmaceutical industry. In other words, a cure is always possible, but the research that will lead to a possible cancer cure is still many years away, so optimists, and investors, should temper their immediate cancer fighting expectations based on this study.
Revolutionary cancer fighting pathways in focus
But the good news here is that even though it could be years before we even see HuR-focused drugs make it into preclinical or clinical trials, we do have a novel class of cancer-fighting drugs making their way through clinical studies.
For example, OncoMed Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:OMED) is utilizing its proprietary drug development platform to develop anticancer stem-cell therapeutics. By targeting specific proteins or biomarkers found in cancer stem cells OncoMed hopes to treat the root causes of cancer and its proliferation, rather than simply trying to slow down its spread as with traditional chemotherapy.
OncoMed's most advanced therapeutic is demcizumab, a monoclonal antibody that targets Delta-like ligand 4, which is important for tumor development. In preclinical studies, blocking DLL-4 was shown to disrupt blood vessel formation to tumors, inhibit cancer stem cell growth and cell differentiation, and possibly even activate the patient's immune response since cancer stem cells are difficult for the immune system to recognize.
OncoMed is also in particularly good shape financially, as it has the backing of collaborative partner Celgene (NASDAQ:CELG) in up to six therapies, of which demcizumab is one. With its pact forged in December 2013, Celgene paid OncoMed $155 million in upfront cash, took a $22.5 million equity stake in OncoMed, and offered more than $3 billion in additional development, regulatory, and sales milestone revenue for its six partnered compounds. Long story short, OncoMed is well financed and ready to attack cancer stem cells!
Another completely new approach to fighting cancer? How about using cannabinoids from the cannabis plant to fight a type of brain cancer known as a glioma. That's exactly what GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:GWPH) is attempting to do with in a phase 2 trial with GWP42002 and GWP42003.
Although we're still waiting for efficacy data from GW, a published study in May 2014 from researchers in London showed that there was a dose-dependent reduction in cell viability when THC and CBD were pretreated in aggressive glioma tumor cells prior to radiation. In layman's terms this means that tumor cells pretreated with marijuana-based cannabinoids experienced higher radiosensitivity and led to greater cell death from radiation therapy. This study makes GW Pharmaceuticals' work with GWP42002 and GWP42003 for glioma particularly intriguing.
Slow but steady progress
To use an analogy, cancer research is like the tortoise and the hare. The hare may be quick off the line, but the slower tortoise eventually wins the race because he's steady.
Cancer research is very similar. Cancer had a head start on researchers because they simply didn't have the technology to keep up. However, as diagnostic tools are steadily improved and new drug development pathways are discovered researchers could slowly narrow the gap between cancer and a cure. I look forward to researchers continuing to narrow this gap and eventually working their way, one day, toward a cure and crossing that finish line.