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August 9, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
In the medical field, promises are a dangerous thing to make. There is almost no such thing as a guarantee, especially when it comes to research and preventative medicine, but one thing is certain: Things are getting better, fast. With the hope of approaching medical breakthroughs, some of these improvements are happening here in Columbia.
Dr. Thomas Mawhinney, MU professor of biochemistry, says advances in medical research are continuous. Mawhinney focuses much of his research on cystic fibrosis, a disease caused by a faulty gene that can result in serious infections in the lungs and other organs.
“This disease used to be lethal,” Mawhinney says. “You didn’t live past 4, maybe 5 years old.”Related Articles
Today, the average life expectancy for a person with cystic fibrosis is 37 years old. However, with the rate of current medical advancements, Mawhinney says he hopes cystic fibrosis patients can live to age 50, 60 or longer.
Equipment is getting better, but this growth in treatment possibilities doesn’t come from one lab alone.
It’s the medical field network that yields such promise. Mawhinney says an idea might start out like the growth of a tree with a single trunk that represents the initial plan. Soon, branches sprout and build off the trunk, and the plant continues to grow. Ideas come from anyone within the network working on the issue.
Early disease detection will better the odds for effective treatment. Mawhinney says Vertex, a new technology that increases the sensitivity of equipment, might soon make bedside cancer testing as simple as a breath analysis. If a patient breathes into an apparatus for 15 minutes, the moisture could be tested for disease. Some labs are even implementing breast cancer detection that’s as simple as collecting sweat from an areola.
MU radiology and physics curators’ professor and senior research scientist of the University of Missouri Research Reactor Dr. Kattesh Katti is focusing on the future of medicine with a major breakthrough made this year.
Katti and his team discovered a new use for a naturally occurring chemical called EGCg, which is found in green tea and can be used to kill cancerous cells. Interaction of EGCg with inherently therapeutic radioactive gold is similar to a lab chemical already in use, but it is safer and has more efficient results. EGCg plays three essential parts in the cancer-killing process: It creates gold nanoparticles, coats the those particles and directs them to the cancer. Before Katti’s discovery, scientists relied on toxic and more complicated chemicals for the same job.
The more amazing aspect of the discovery is that there is a natural connection between EGCg and the proteins emitted by cancerous prostate cells. Therefore, the gold particles coated in EGCg will find the cancerous prostate protein without destroying the surrounding cells. So far, Katti has only published his results with prostate cancer cells, but he says the same protein that attracts the EGCg particle is also present in other types of cancer.
The success Katti found has led him to believe the FDA might expedite its testing process to allow clinical trials with humans. “We are way beyond the proof of concept,” Katti says. “We have clearly shown, with 100 percent reproducibility, that the tumors shrink up to 80 percent in size with a singular injection.”
The 80 percent shrinkage of a tumor is a significant number when it comes to combination therapy. Traditional treatments, such as chemotherapy, are usually applied after an existing tumor has shrunk 50 percent. The EGCg-coated particles not only reduce the size of tumors faster but also more efficiently than toxic chemicals.
“This is why we believe our approach will make combination therapy much more productive and applicable to patients,” Katti says. “Once the tumors are at a manageable size, a doctor will decide what other treatment will be used to eradicate the existing cancer cells.”
In addition to shrinking existing tumors, Katti says his EGCg-coated particles will also destroy the stem of the tumor and prevent new cancerous cells from being produced.
“Our treatment not only will stop the growth and production of new stem tumor cells, but it will also prevent the recruitment of those stem tumor cells into the bone marrow,” Katti says. “Localized therapy has been shown to slow down or completely stop the growth of the tumors.”
With this medical breakthrough, Katti is optimistic about what the future brings for his research.
“Based on what we have now,” Katti says, “I hope that the clinical trials can start within three to five years.” Before long, this discovery might be changing the way we treat prostate cancer.
Katti is working with synthesized cancer in mice, but MU curators’ professor Dr. Randy Prather has been using another animal to guide his research. He’s been producing synthetic cystic fibrosis in swine. The physiological makeup of pigs makes them prime subjects for study because of the similarity their organs have to those of humans. Prather says the genetic modifications he makes to the pigs cause the disease to attack them like it would a human. “The more information we develop about pig embryos in the lab, the more we can transfer that information to human health,” Prather says.
When Prather finds a genetic strand that works, he implants that genetic information into a nucleus. This clones the initial pig. Prather says he has produced more than 30 unique genetic strands and cloned 600 pigs at MU since 2008.
Prather compared the human growth process to an intricate display of dominoes. As each cell type starts to specialize through development, a new domino, or gene, falls over and becomes active. If a domino falls to the left and turns on the healthy gene, it could produce a perfectly functional genetic makeup that presents no health risks. A fall to the right, however, could lead to genetic dysfunction causing cystic fibrosis. When Prather looks to clone a pig with cystic fibrosis for research, he locates the somatic cell that can cause cystic fibrosis, implants it in an unfertilized egg and transfers it to a surrogate.
“What we’re really asking to happen by doing this is for all those dominoes to stand back up so the nucleus starts over,” Prather says.
This procedure is similar to the one used to clone Dolly the sheep in 1996. At the time, Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned using somatic cells, or stem cells. In only 16 years, cloning has gone from a singular instance that garnered worldwide attention to a procedure that has been reproduced hundreds of times at MU alone. Statistics like these give promise and hope for the possible discoveries of the next 16 years. Like gold buried in a mountainside, the next great medical breakthrough is simply waiting for the right miner to come along.