A Tiny Hospital’s Promising Research

A lab-turned-hospital for mice in Boston is helping researchers understand cancer in humans.

Jessica Rinaldi for The New York Times

Jessica Rinaldi for The New York Times

Maybe this sounds like the opening line to one of those wasteful-spending reports, but it’s not. And the results — while still a long way from producing a treatment — have allowed researchers to gain insight into the links between cancer and a handful of mutated genes.

New York Times reporter Gina Kolkata describes the “hospital” at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: imaging devices writ small with a dedicated pharmacy and clinical lab. She follows researchers that are looking into prostate cancer.

Mice are injected with a few rogue genes, and researchers monitor any tumors that develop. Initial treatment is similar to what humans in the same situation could expect; even the expected complications are the same. As in humans, the standard treatment works for only so long before the tumors begin resisting.

And that’s when the interesting things happen.

Because the researchers know exactly which genes are responsible, they can develop treatments that target only those genes. In advanced prostate cancer in humans, such a task is infinitely more complex.

This research has confirmed that it’ll take multiple drugs; the next step is for researchers to identify the specific combination of drugs that will lead to the most effective treatment.

“If we start randomly throwing every combination together, there are not enough patients on earth to test them,” said Lewis Cantley, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medical College and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, according to the Times story. “We need a scientific rationale for picking a particular combination of drugs.”

These insights have already led to a clinical trial; drugs from Janssen and Novartis are being tested in combination to see if they can defeat the cancer. Another trial, with a pharmaceutical from GlaxoSmithKline and a natural compound, is nearly ready to begin.

“It’s a very clever, innovative way to try to improve patient care,” Scott Eggener, MD, of the University of Chicago, told the newspaper. “Now it is incumbent on them to show it works in humans.”

A long road remains, as Eggener points out. But this is just the latest example of why it’s critical to support medical research; who could have expected that a miniature hospital could produce such outsized results?

Weill Cornell Medical College, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, Janssen, Novartis, GSK and the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine are all Research!America members.

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