Scientists have made important advances in detection and treatment of some cancers, but doctors have few tools when it comes to the diagnosis of ovarian and pancreatic cancer.
Now, a surprising discovery at the University of Virginia may lead to new tests for and treatment of those and other deadly forms of cancer.
Dr. John Herr is an expert on cell biology, and for many years he studied human eggs – hoping to develop new forms of birth control. In the course of that research, his University of Virginia team identified a protein on the surface of mature human eggs. At first, they thought, it was only found there, but later analysis showed this same protein is on the surface of certain tumor cell.
“Cancers, when they go awry, are reverting back and taking on characteristics of the mother cell – the egg.,” Herr explains. “Uterine cancers, ovarian cancers, invasive bladder cancers, pancreatic cancers, renal cancers are showing this particular new drug target on their surfaces.”
He calls the protein a “drug target,” because scientists can now create medications that specifically bind to the protein and attack cancer cells, while sparing healthy tissue.
“Most chemotherapies target molecules that are common in many cell types,” Herr says. “That’s why hair falls out, you get nauseated, you get anemic. But a new target like this, that’s only on the surface of the cancer offers us the possibility of only targeting the cancer and not the healthy tissues in the body.”
To speed the development of those drugs and of screening tests for the protein, UVA is partnering with Pfizer and the Center for Innovative Technology in Northern Virginia. Prototype drugs have already been tested in the laboratory, and Herr believes they're about three years away from beginning the first tests on humans.