Making a Positive Difference: New Technique Will Allow Personalized Treatment for Cancer Patients

Posted: April 2, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

On March 22, Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of presidential candidate John Edwards, announced that her cancer had recurred and was inoperable. On March 27, Tony Snow, White House press secretary, announced that his cancer had recurred and spread to his liver.

Later that day, Mason researchers Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin announced the formation of a new company that in another year will offer physicians a tool to more precisely target cancer therapies and thus help cases like Edwards’ and Snow’s.

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Lance Liotta and Emanuel Petricoin

“We’re not here to talk about curing cancer,” Petricoin said at the launching of their new company, Theranostics Health LLC. “We’re here to talk about making cancer a manageable disease. Our ultimate goal is to be able to put a patient into indefinite remission.”

To do that, the two scientists, through their company, will partner with pharmaceutical companies in the coming year to identify drug targets (the proteins in cells that direct cell activity) and assess anticancer drugs during clinical trials. Then, in 2008, Theranostics Health will begin working with physicians and hospitals so that patients can be treated with personalized plans.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Scientists now know that even though two patients may be diagnosed with lung cancer, their cancer is not really the same. At the molecular level, every patient’s tumor is different. Yet current cancer therapy is standardized for all.

Not surprisingly, only about 20 to 30 percent of patients respond favorably to the standard treatment; meanwhile, other patients unnecessarily suffer the side effects of unsuccessful treatment. The researchers say their new technique, which they developed at Mason, can ultimately broaden the favorable response by providing physicians with information they can use to tailor patient treatment.

“This is a breakthrough platform that enables the physician and pharmaceutical companies to have that critical piece of information that really allows personalized medicine to flourish,” Petricoin said last week.

Combining their clinical and research expertise, Liotta and Petricoin invented a new type of protein microarray technology to simultaneously measure multiple protein pathways from a biopsy specimen no larger than the head of a pin.

As Liotta explained it, “Genetic aberrations in the cancer cell cause hyperactive pathways, like hyperactive circuitry of an electronic circuit, to stimulate the cancer perpetually. These hyperactive circuits that have now been identified by cancer research are the exciting new targets for the class of drugs called molecular targeted inhibitors.”

These hyperactive pathways, he went on to explain, are different in different patients, even though the cancer may look the same. But with Liotta and Petricoin’s work, a critical missing piece of information can be supplied with their new technology for measuring the firing rate of the drug target itself in a patient’s tumor.

“In this way, the physician can select the drug that can perhaps knock out the right target and treat the right patient with the right drug.”

The scientists are optimistic that their research will eventually have implications for the treatment of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disorders and infectious diseases, among others.

“Our encouragement of the patenting and commercialization of scientific discoveries helps all of society,” noted Matt Kluger, vice president for research and economic development, at the Theranostics launch. “The discoveries that our faculty make span multiple disciplines, but the theme that emerges is that they make a positive difference to society.”

A Fruitful Partnership

Liotta and Petricoin have already had a partnership of more than 10 years, going back to their work for the federal government.

Liotta, who has a combined MD and PhD from Case Western Reserve University, is the former chief of the Laboratory of Pathology and the Section of Tumor Invasion and Metastases in the Division of Clinical Sciences, National Cancer Institute (NCI), NIH.

Petricoin has a PhD in microbiology from the University of Maryland. Before joining Mason, he was codirector of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—NCI Clinical Proteomics Program and senior investigator in the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at FDA.

The two scientists began their proteomics collaboration in 1997, which led to the formation of the first Interagency Agreement between NCI and FDA to develop and test technologies for proteomic analysis — the study of protein activity in cells — of cancer and other diseases.

Their collaboration has produced more than 100 publications and numerous proteomic processes to develop new methods for diagnosis and treatment of diseases.

At Mason, they currently codirect the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine.

See a video of the press conference announcing Theranostics Health.

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