Drug cocktails changed the face of one disease and may do the same in cancer

April 19, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

Who can argue that peanut butter does not taste great with chocolate?

And as much as we admire Albert Einstein for his solitary work on understanding that whole “space-time” relationship, we also celebrate the group mind of scientists like Francis Crick, Rosalind A. Franklin and James D. Watson who, together, worked out the structure of DNA. Sometimes things are simply better in pairs — or trios.

American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) logoTake highly active antiretroviral therapy, commonly called HAART, for one. Many physicians cite the introduction of HAART — basically a combination of three or more virus-fighting drugs — in the 1990s as a major turning point in HIV/AIDS treatment. Through HAART’s “drug cocktails,” what was once considered an immediate death sentence became a chronic condition that was manageable for most people infected with HIV.

Doctors came up with the combinations of drugs used in HAART only after each drug was approved and used individually. But today some researchers, including scientists at City of Hope, are looking at drug combinations for diseases like cancer much earlier, while the drugs are still in development.

They recently presented two lab studies of potential new combination cancer treatments for lymphoma and solid tumors at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in early April.

City of Hope’s Anna Scuto, Ph.D., assistant research professor of molecular medicine, presented the lymphoma study.

Scuto tested two investigational drugs that each push lymphoma cells to commit a sort of cellular suicide. When researchers put the drugs together, they worked much better against cancer than either did alone. That’s because the two drugs use different methods to drive cancer cells to kill themselves. Researchers think this combination approach may offer physicians a new strategy to fight lymphomas.

Scuto’s work has been sponsored in part by the Tim Nesvig Lymphoma Fellowship and Research Fund.

Wei Liang, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in molecular medicine, presented the other study, which focused on immunotherapy.

Immunotherapies use the patient’s own immune system to battle cancer. The immune system gets rid of damaged cells, like cancer cells, and fights off bacteria and viruses. Cancer has a sneaky way of hiding and escaping from the immune system, though.

Liang focused on improving what’s called adoptive T-cell therapy. In this treatment, scientists tweak a patient’s own T cells to better recognize and fight cancer cells. But even re-engineered T -cells can have trouble overcoming cancer’s defenses. The investigational drug brivanib can reset these defenses. In Liang’s study, it boosted the number of T cells that could attack cancer — and made immunotherapy more effective.

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