Harvard Doctor Pioneers Cancer Drug

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug last Thursday anticipated to be a revolutionary development in the fight against cancer.

Based upon the research of a Harvard affiliated doctor, Avastin is the first drug on the market that works by shutting down the blood vessels surrounding a colorectal tumor, starving it of blood and nutrients.

The process is called anti-angiogenesis, and was pioneered by Dr. Judah Folkman of the Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital of Boston almost 30 years ago.

Folkman’s anti-angiogenesis studies made the news in 1998 by successfully curing mice of cancer.

But Folkman said that further testing on humans with the anti-angiogenesis drug in conjunction with chemotherapy did not yield similarly successful results.

“We couldn’t test patients in early stages of cancer, only terminally-ill patients who often had failed numerous chemotherapies, which made them more resistant to our drugs,” Folkman said.

The biotechnology research company Genentech, Inc. began testing Avastin in September 2003. Avastin is a genetically-engineered protein that binds to and neutralizes vascular endothelial growth factor, a protein that spurs the growth of blood vessels surrounding a cancerous tumor.

Though it is not a cure, the FDA called Avastin the “first such product that has been proven to delay tumor growth and more importantly, significantly extend the lives of patients.”

Folkman said that the next step includes testing the effectiveness of Avastin on forms of cancer other than colon cancer and on patients receiving various doses of chemotherapy.

Since chemotherapy is a procedure with several serious side-effects, scientists are testing whether it is possible treat patients with a combination of chemotherapy and Avastin.

“With Avastin, patients don’t face the same side effects as with chemotherapy drugs. There’s no hair-loss, vomiting, weight-loss or anemia,” he said.

Though the FDA said there is low statistical evidence of side-effects with Avastin, they have said that in some cases, side-effects may exist.

In these rare cases, side effects might include the formation of holes in the colon. Such side-effects would require surgery to prevent intra-abdominal infections or internal bleeding.

But the risk of these side-effects may not deter cancer patients from experimenting with Avastin.

According to the FDA, patients treated with Avastin in conjunction with chemotherapy drugs tended to live an average of five months longer than patients only receiving chemotherapy.

“This is a major milestone in angiogenesis research and a turning-point in cancer therapy,” Folkman said.

Though Avastin has only been approved to treat colorectal cancer, current testing incudes treating patients with other forms of cancer.

And Folkman said the FDA, scientists and current cancer patients must now wait in anticipation to see what developments in cancer therapy these results may yield.

“This is like the Wright Brothers, who conducted their first flight in 1903. With their knowledge of flight, could they fly across the ocean? No, but Lindbergh could. And who would have thought Armstrong would be flying to and walking on the moon 66 years later? Cancer will be easier to treat with developments like this,” Folkman said.