Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Counting Chickens: Cancer Still Tough to Crack

Pennsylvanian Inventor Touting Cancer "Cure"

Cancer is a challenge. It is a challenge to patients. It is a challenge to their families. It is a challenge to researchers.

A leukemia patient from Erie, Pennsylvania decided to take matters into his own hands. His name is John Kanzius and he doesn't have an MD, Phd, or even a bachelors degree. He is, however, a creative mind who has been a radio and TV engineer for most of his life. Kanzius put his experience with radio wave technology to use when he coupled it with cutting edge nanotechnology. He and his partners have created injectable nanoparticles which generate heat when they are exposed to low frequency radio waves. This is definately and interesting and inspirational story.

Kanzius's energy transfer technology sounds fascinating, it really does. The idea of being able to heat small particles with projected radio waves could have lots of uses. Unfortunately, I just don't think its a cure or even a particularly useful technology for the treatment for cancer. Sorry, Mr. Kanzius.

Basically, Kanzius wants to physically perturb the cancerous cells by cooking them. He says that cancer cells will die when exposed to temperatures over 130 degrees. Well, so will healthy cells. While that is an interesting idea, it really isn't very much different from killing the cancerous cells chemically with chemotherapeutics or with targeted radiation. One would still need to contend with the issue of cell/tissue specificity.

The biggest challenge, which Kanzius addresses/glosses over in interviews, will be the targeting of cancer cells only. How will he keep his nanoparticles from cooking the rest of patients' cells? How is this any different from chemotherapy which targets cancer cells in a rudimentary way by targeting dividing cells? Honestly, one could make a case to say that chemotherapies are ahead of Kanzius' radio nanoparticles because at least there is some specificity. I suppose the advantage of his technology is the fact that "treatment" can be turned off when the radio wave generator is turned off.

For his technology to work, aptamers will need to be developed. Aptamers are oligonucleotides or peptides which stick to cell specific molecules. In research, they are often bound to pharmacological agents or cell markers.

The aptamers, whether for Kanzius' superheated nanoparticle antennas or cytotoxic chemicals, would likely need to be different for each tumor type. The means that the problem remains a discovery biology dilemma. Discovery biologists and the pharmaceutical companies for whom Kanzius seems to express considerable disdain have been working on this same problem for years. They've just been trying to selectively target their chemotherapy drugs instead of superheatable nanoparticles. Discovery efforts to generate cell specific aptamers are almost as involved and expensive as any drug discovery effort. Also, the idea of verifying that an aptamer only binds to a tumor cell is a huge undertaking. Researchers would basically need to undertake an enormous protein specificity assay. Today, proteomics efforts are still cumbersome and expensive. If researchers try to take short cuts and bypass any of these experiments, we might have doctors saying, "Oops, I fried your kidney...Sorry, didn't think it was going to do that...". More concerns involve heavy metal poisoning, nanoparticle immunoreactivity, and the pharmacodynamics of the aptamer, just to name a few.

So while Kanzius should be commended for his ingenuity in introducing a new technology to the cancer fight, Joyce Savocchio (the former mayor of Erie) probably should not be declaring him a future Nobel Laureate or calling Erie the place where cancer was cured. Perhaps he should also temper his own rhetoric a little bit, particularly when he implies that no one else is working very hard on the cancer problem. He and Ms. Savocchio sound ignorant to the real issues.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

It has been far too long since I last posted. I have missed the Omnome project and the Science Blogging community as a whole quite a bit while I have been distracted. I realized in the first months after initiating this blog site that the diversity of discussion in the science blog community really expanded my scientific thinking.

I hope my experiences in the past few weeks that have caused me to be so absent from Omnome will have provided me some insights that will enrich my posts on a few subjects that are regularly addressed here.

So what have I been doing? First of all, to say that I have been doing anything is a gross overstatement as anything I do is as part of a massive team effort. Secondly, I am somewhat constrained by organizational confidentiality agreements so it would be unprofessional for me to say too much. However, I think I can safely tell you the following about my past month:

1) Data was finally compiled and made accessible to me from a very large gene expression profiling effort which took my group one full year to complete. The dataset is made up of about 9 million data points. Mining is fun! Spotfire software can be fun as a visualization tool of the data. However, the statistical power of the program is sorely lacking.

2) My research group used stem cells in an animal model of neurodegeneration. I am pretty sure that's all I can really say about that. However, I suspect I will interject more thoughts about the technology in future posts as a result of my experiences with these cells.

3) My research group has initiated two large scale gene therapy efforts in animal models of neurodegeneration using adenoviral vectors.

I hope I will be able to find the time to frequent Omnome a bit more again. I look forward to visiting my scienceblogs favorites again as well. However, the people who actually pay me at work will continue to have a say over that.