A recent article in Northwestern’s University Health reported that although the survival rate for cancer patients has vastly improved over the past twenty years, the deaths due to metastatic cancer has shown very little improvement. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths.
Currently, there are no drugs available designed specifically to prevent metastatic cancer.
Dr. Sui Huang, a scientist at Northwestern Medicine who has been working on this research for twenty-five years, explained that the primary tumor is generally not the cause of death. Tumors can be eliminated through chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.
However, as in the case of breast cancer, removing a cancerous tumor still leaves the patient vulnerable to cancer spreading to other parts of the body such as the liver, lungs, brain, and bones.
A New Approach
Dr. Huang explained that they are working on an entirely new approach to engineering anti-cancer therapy. Their efforts are focused on finding one compound aimed at multiple targets that cause metastasis.
The doctor, together with her colleagues from numerous cancer institutes, found a new plan of attack in their discovery of a compound that stops the spread of cancerous cells.
About perinucleolar compartment (PNC)
The scientists tested 140,000 compounds using a robotic system in order to find compounds that are capable of dismantling the PNC biomarker.
PNC is known to be associated with specific tumors that have a tendency to metastasize. In 1990, Dr. Huang and her associates discovered that a high level of PNC in tumors leads to greater chances of metastasis. The presence of PNC in the original tumor translates into a poor prognosis for the patient.
Through a team effort, a compound that substantially reduced metastasis of tumors in animal models was identified and named metarrestin. The researchers modified certain qualities in the compound to facilitate its effectiveness as a drug.
Cancer cells taken from human prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer were injected into mice organs to produce tissue grafts (xenografts).
One group of mice were treated with metarrestin resulting in fewer metastatic tumors. The mice that received treatment lived longer than the second (control group) that were left untreated.
The scientists also inoculated metastatic breast cancer cells directly into mice. This is another type of tissue graft named patient-derived xenograft. It more closely mimics the cancer condition in humans.
These results were published in Science Translational Medicine on May 16, 2018. The researchers intend to submit Metarrestin for approval by the FDA as well as initiating a clinical trial in the coming months.
Dr. Huang’s Inspiration
Dr. Huang was twelve years old when her mother died of cancer. Her drive to find a way to halt the spread of cancer is just as strong now as it was when she began her research twenty-five years ago.
A second person influenced her career. It was an eighteen-year old boy with an extremely high fever that she encountered at a hospital in China. The boy was a bright student and had just taken his college entrance exam.
He was diagnosed with acute lymphoma and with no treatment available the boy died within one month of receiving his diagnosis.
Dr. Huang describes feeling “so useless” and it was at that moment that she decided to enter graduate school to offer her services as a scientist.