A perfect match of drug repurposing and an innovative technique for laboratory cell growth create promise for cervical cancer patients.
A drug that is used worldwide to treat malaria is now being tested as a treatment for cervical cancer. This surprising idea is the result of a new laboratory technique that could have far-reaching uses. The alternative use for pharmaceuticals, known as drug repurposing, offers both research, treatment and economic efficiencies for patients and the healthcare industry at large.
The story starts with Dr. Richard Schlegel at Georgetown University Medical Center. He is best known for inventing the Gardasil vaccine to protect women from cervical cancer.
Dr. Schlegel wished he could take cancer cells from women who came to the hospital for treatment and grow them in the lab to learn more about this disease.
"People have tried growing cells in culture before, but they've been very crude experiments, essentially," he says. Most of these freshly collected cells die off quickly in the lab.
Schlegel's radical idea involved a new way to grow human cells. The secret to keeping them alive indefinitely was to grow them on a bed of mouse cells. These mouse cells have been blasted with radiation to prevent them from multiplying, and the culture is then treated with a compound (called a ROCK inhibitor) that regulates cell growth.
Dr. Schlegel has said that he does not know exactly what the mouse cells provide for the human cells to keep them alive and growing. If he is ultimately able to figure that out, eventually he can dispense with the mouse cells. However for now, the layer of mouse cells is the key.
So far, he has grown more than 30 types of cancer cells — as well as many normal human cells that he studies for comparison. All together Dr. Schlegel has grown cells from 700 different samples of human tissue.
Recently he took some cervical cancer cells and started dosing them with drugs to see what would kill them. He tried all sorts of other available medicines, not not just drugs used to treat cancer.
And as goes remarkable discoveries produced by creative researchers, he found that a drug commonly used to treat malaria will also kill cervical cancer cells. The drug is a form of artemisinin. And this is where drug repurposing introduces it's efficiencies.
Dr. Schlegel is now collaborating with researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine to test this drug in women who have precancerous growths on their cervix.
Dr. Connie Trimble is running the drug trial at Johns Hopkins. She will offer this drug to women who are likely to require cervical surgery in the coming months. She hopes that, instead, the drug will kill off the cervical cancer cells in women, as it did in the lab.
"If it works, this is a game-changer," Trimble says, "because it puts control of treatment in the hands of the woman. In low-resource settings, or settings where women don't have access to health care, they can do it themselves."
Doctors already know this anti-malarial drug is safe, so it could be a front-line treatment in parts of the world where surgery simply isn't available. It would require an easy diagnostic test women can use at home; Trimble says that's also in the works.
Dr. Schlegel says at least 30 labs around the world are now using this cell growth technique, which is called "conditional reprogramming". At the moment, everyone is hopeful that it will be the next big thing for studying diseases in the lab. It is still too early to make that bold of a claim though.
A few other research groups focused on delivering effective, innovative and efficient cancer treatments for patients, are also involved with drug repurposing. The economies are as follows: