By Tom Still
MADISON – It seems I can’t go more than a few weeks without hearing about someone – a friend, a relative, a business acquaintance – who has been diagnosed with cancer. That’s the bad news. The good news is that, in general, their chances of survival are getting better by the day.
Society is slowing winning the war against cancer. That’s due in part to better health habits, such as not smoking, but it’s also because diagnostic and therapeutic technologies are advancing at an accelerated pace.
Thanks to the mapping of the human genome, and the related explosion of knowledge about proteins, enzymes, genetic markers, targeted therapeutics and “personalized medicine,” researchers are making headway along many fronts. There won’t be a single cure for cancer – but there may be a number of diagnostics and therapies that will help detect cancers sooner and fight them more effectively.
“We are entering a new era of personalized medicine wherein small molecules that target enzymes, monoclonal antibodies that target surface proteins, and vaccines that target internal proteins can be designed for the individual pathways that cause different cancers,” said Dr. David Scheinberg of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in advance of the annual “Cancer Progress” conference to be held in New York. “Multiple therapeutic strategies are being combined to produce even better results.”
Scheinberg is not alone in his guarded optimism. In the latest “Cancer Trends Progress Report” for 2005, issued by the National Cancer Institute, researchers said a mix of prevention behaviors, screening tests and treatments are yielding results. The report sounded an alarm bell about certain types of cancers – breast cancer in woman and prostate cancer in men, and leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma and cancers of the thyroid, kidney and esophagus in all Americans. However, it also noted that “cancer treatment is improving – saving lives and extending survival for people with cancers at many sites…”
Wisconsin bioscience companies are a part of this revolution. Here are a few examples:
- TomoTherapy in Madison is one of a handful of companies worldwide that makes specialized radiation machines for treating cancer. TomoTherapy’s Hi-Art system pinpoints tumors, firing narrow but concentrated beams of radiation at the cancer. Radiation levels drop off significantly beyond the tumor site, thus lowering the risk of harming healthy tissue.
- PointOne Systems LLC in Wauwatosa makes clinical genetic information products that can accelerate physician application of knowledge in genomics, gene expression, proteomics and other emerging areas. Chronic diseases, such as cancer, are the ultimate targets of this type of “molecular medicine.”
- GenTel BioSurfaces Inc. in Madison makes microarrays, or “biochips,” that contain hundreds to thousands of test sites in an area the size of a dime. The biochips read blood to identify specific proteins involved with cancers and other diseases. This allows laboratory specialists to detect the patterns of the proteins earlier for more effective diagnosis and treatment.
- Cellectar, a Madison company, is researching a compound called NM404 that has been shown to identify and shrink a variety of malignant tumors in mice.
- Quintessence Biosciences in Madison has developed a human protein that has been genetically modified so it is toxic to cancer cells.
- Third Wave Technologies in Madison won FDA approval last summer for a diagnostic assay that will be used to identify patients with increased risk of adverse reaction to Camptosar, a chemotherapy drug.
- Platypus Technologies of Fitchburg won a National Cancer Institute grant to develop a liquid crystal-based technology for rapid quantification of protein activity, which is useful in cancer research.
- GE Medical Systems in Waukesha signed a clinical trial agreement with the cancer imaging program of the National Cancer Institute to test a chemotherapeutic agent that can monitor proliferation of cancer cells.
- NovaScan in Milwaukee, co-winner of the 2004 Governor’s Business Plan Contest, has developed a technology that can help distinguish benign from malignant tumors by measuring electrical activity.
These companies are at different stages of research, development, clinical trials and product approval. But they’re all pulling in roughly the same direction – disease diagnosis and treatment. They represent how many Wisconsin companies (and related research institutions) are engaged in the fight against cancer.
It may be years before biotechnology produces blockbuster results. Only 30 or so biotech cancer drugs have been developed worldwide, and chemotherapy remains the treatment norm. However, there’s hope and genuine excitement among researchers and physicians. For those who are fighting cancer, or yet to be diagnosed, that’s heartening news.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.