Ottawa researchers are celebrating a breakthrough that has the potential to transform the way cancer is treated.
Details of the new combination therapy discovered by researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, were published Monday in Nature Biology.
Robert Korneluk, senior scientist at the CHEO Research Institute, said the combination therapy, discovered in the institute’s lab, is made-in-Ottawa on several levels.
It combines two experimental cancer treatments — viral therapy, which was pioneered at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute led by Dr. John Bell, as well as IAP (inhibitor of apoptosis protein)-based therapies that target cancer genes, which were discovered at CHEO 19 years ago. Both are in trials with a view to potential future use as an alternative to current cancer treatments of radiation and chemotherapies.
The discovery, in effect, takes a drug that knocks out the genes that make cancer cells “bullet proof” — something like pulling the plug on those cells’ resistance to dying — and gives it an extra push by priming the body’s immune response, said Korneluk.
The experimental therapies are not toxic the way radiation and chemotherapy are — patients would not lose their hair, for example, nor do they kill white blood cells. Still, although results for each are encouraging, they have yet to show substantial effects on cancer.
But it is what happened when Korneluk and other researchers combined the two therapies that have researchers really excited about the potential for a new effective way to treat cancer that has fewer side-effects.
When combined, the therapies that target cancer causing genes and oncolytics, or cancer-fighting viruses, create a synergistic or amplified cancer killing effect that Korneluk says is many times more effective than either therapy on its own. It had a cure rate of up to 90 per cent in mice. CHEO institute researchers are already looking into setting up trials for the combination therapy.
“I firmly believe it is not a matter of if this will help cancer patients — but when this becomes a standard of care,” said Korneluk.
Although both parts of the combined therapy have Ottawa connections, labs around the world and drug companies have been working to turn the discoveries into treatments that both extend the lives of and improve the quality of life for cancer patients. The combined therapy not only shows promise of being highly effective against cancer, and safe for children, said Korneluk, but would be applicable for many types of cancer.
The fact that research and development is advanced on both the standalone treatments might speed evolution of the combined therapy from lab discovery to treatment, said Korneluk, but that is still a decade or more away.
“It’s not ready for prime time,” he said, but the fact that both agents in the combined therapy have proven to be safe is a big step in the right direction.
Korneluk, who has a hard time containing his excitement about the discovery calls it a breakthrough. “The thing that distinguishes this is that it is truly close to clinical application.”
Korneluk said the combined therapy is a big step toward new, more effective, less toxic cancer treatments, but is also very simple in many ways.
“This is the first time that someone has shown that this approach is effective and yet it has been asked ‘What took you so long?’”