Researchers work on new cancer treatments

April 2, 2009 7:10:46 PM PDT
Researchers in the Bay Area are working on a new and potentially groundbreaking treatment for an often deadly form of cancer. The research centers on lymphoma, but if the strategy works, scientists believe the same method could be used to tackle other cancers next.

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In his lab at Stanford University, Dr. Ronald Levy is not only tracking tumors, he is experimenting with a new way of killing them. And early results from a phase-2 trial of lymphoma patients are intriguing.

"What's she's showing me is that the immune system has woken up and recognized the tumor; the tumor is responding and going away from the blood because the immune system is attacking it," Levy said.

Levy's team began by engineering a piece of DNA that resembles bacteria. In mouse studies, researchers targeted a specific tumor, first weakening it with radiation, then injecting the bio-engineered DNA into it, as a kind of decoy to activate the immune system.

"It works, it actually works, it works in animals; we can cure animals with big tumors, with big lymphomas tumors in their body," Levy said.

It seems once the immune system is activated and takes on the specific tumor, it then starts to recognize lymphoma cells and eventually attack them, not only going after the targeted tumor, but others all over the body.

"When you have a disease like this, it's like a time bomb, you never know when it's going to start up again,' cancer patient David Burwen said.

Burwen was diagnosed with follicular non-Hodgkin's lymphoma more than 10 years ago. He took part in an earlier vaccine trial with levy in 2001.

"The results for me were kind of mixed, I had some tumors that got smaller and some that progressed somewhat, so I was sort of a mixed responder," Burwen said.

Five years later, he signed up for Levy's latest clinical trial, this time, he saw even better results.

"Since the end of that trial, my disease has been completely static at a low level, so I'm in what's called in partial remission," Burwen said.

Back in the lab, researchers are hoping this latest strategy will work something like a conventional vaccination, preventing lymphoma from recurring. If they are successful, they believe it could usher in a new era in cancer treatment.

"So we think if can make this work for lymphoma tumors, that we can also apply this to other kinds of cancer as well, so we see lymphomas as the opening gambit here," Levy said.

Levy's team is still recruiting patients for the clinical trial on follicular non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Click here for details.

If you are interested in supporting this kind of research, tune in to the KGO Radio cure-a-thon tomorrow and Saturday beginning at 7 p.m. The money raised benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and every penny stays in the Bay Area, helping to fund projects at research centers like Stanford and UCSF.

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