San Antonio — The goal of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center in San Antonio is pretty straightforward: Prevent the suffering that cancer causes people.
Researchers there have spent decades developing innovative methods of detecting, preventing, and treating various forms of the disease. The cancer center was founded in the 1970s as a nonprofit and began receiving funding from the National Cancer Institute in 1991. In 2007, it became a part of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, where it is housed today.
Xconomy recently spoke with Ian Thompson, the director of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center and a urologic oncologist at the university, about the work being done there on prevention and treatment of cancer. The conversation has been edited for content and clarity.
Xconomy: What are some of the novel therapies you’re developing at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center?
Ian Thompson: We have one agent that is actually in phase one clinical trials right now that was developed here. They are nanoliposomes, very small fat globules, which have been pumped in a radioisotope of rhenium, rhenium 186. It gives off an alpha particle. Andrew Brenner and a team of neurologists, nuclear medicine, chemists, neuro-oncologists, and imaging physicians as well as neurosurgeons, are now treating patients with recurrent brain cancer, glioblastoma.
X: How does it work?
IT: It’s very simple: under local anesthesia, with a specialized needle (the radioactive fat particles are) injected into the tumor. I think we’re in our third cohort of patients now that we’re treating. It’s remarkable.
X: What’s happening with it now?
IT: That technology was developed here. The original preclinical studies were done here. A company called NanoTx was spun off and it’s overseeing the clinical trial. Thus far, it’s proceeding according to what we would expect it to be. We’re working up the doses. We’ll see what happens. It’s truly novel technology for a class of cancers, for which treatment results currently are dismal. [NanoTX Therapeutics received a $2 million grant from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas last year.]
X: You personally have been more focused on prostate cancer, right?
IT: The area we’ve been working on, my group, has been prostate cancer for the last 35 years. It’s a disease that most of us will have in our lifetime. If you take your age and put a percent behind your age, it’s the likelihood you have cancer in your prostate at any given age. I’m 61, so there’s about a 60 percent chance I have cancer in my prostate. Even people in their 30s may have some cancer in their prostate. Most of us will have it, but a minority of us will die from it. About 2.5 percent will die from it. Still, 2.5 percent of a lot of people is a lot of people dying from it.
X: What has your work targeted?
IT: We’ve done a lot of work through some of our local studies, as well as national studies. In the cancer prevention field, I’ve had the good fortune of helping run two large studies. One was called the Prostate Cancer Prevention trial that was about 19,000 men who we followed for about 10 years or so. What we found is that a drug that is used for male-pattern hair loss, finasteride, which is also used for prostate enlargement, reduces the risk of prostate cancer by about one-third.
X: Could you commercialize that in some way?
IT: It never really made it through the FDA for that purpose, although it’s used for prostate enlargement. We followed that up with a trial called Select with vitamins that were thought to be reducing the risk of prostate cancer, vitamin E and selenium. It turned out that neither were reducing the risk of prostate cancer, but that vitamin E increased the risk by about 17 percent. A major take-home message as a result of that 35,000-subject study is that men should not take vitamin E for any reason whatsoever. It’s been disproven to have any beneficial effect, especially in the U.S. where people are heavily fortified.
X: What kind of work have you done to prevent recurrence of the disease?
IT: A study that I wrote in 1986, and I think we (completed) it in 2009,was a study of men who had undergone surgery for prostate cancer and were found to have locally advanced disease. In 1986, if you went around the U.S. to one institution—in fact, if you did it in 2008—they would say they’re going to watch you [to see if the disease recurs]. If you went to a different one, they would say they’re going to give you radiation. There was no consensus. It took more than 20 years to prove it, but we found that the radiation given after surgery dramatically reduces the risk of recurrence. It reduces the risk of metastases and it reduced the risk of death. It was external beam radiation. That became a national guideline, which men today who are found to have locally advanced disease after surgery should be informed that radiation after surgery substantially reduces the risk of recurrence and reduces the risk of dying.
X: How strongly do you consider commercialization possibilities during your research?
IT: Commercialization remains an important part of it. Some things are hard to commercialize. You’d like to try to commercialize as much as you can. But if you only focus on commercialization, you make products that cost $100,000 per patient. Sometimes, while it may be less commercializable, sometimes … Do you know the term elegant?
X: The word?
IT: If you look up the term elegant in the dictionary, there is an essential descriptor of something that is elegant: simple. We aspire for elegant solutions to cancer, which sometimes are really simple.
X: How so?
IT: We have an enormous effort going on right now to develop a plan to ensure that every single person that’s eligible in South Texas can get the HPV vaccination. It’s not high science. It’s not high science at all. It’s simple. The concept that there are women and men who die of cervical and oral and head and neck cancers unnecessarily from something that’s completely preventable is astonishing in this country. You could eliminate it all. Our purpose is to make people live longer and live higher-quality lives, and to prevent them from suffering from cancer. Sometimes, you’re not going to commercialize that.