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VCU Massey Cancer Center to partner with Israeli biotech firm

The Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center will open a Phase I pancreatic cancer study later this year in conjunction with leading researchers from Israel, marking the first time cancer researchers at VCU have partnered with their counterparts in Israel.

The study is supported by a $950,000 grant from the U.S.-Israel Bi-National Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRDF). Leaders from the Virginia Israel Bioscience Commercialization Center (VIBCC) helped to foster Israeli interest in research at VCU.

The clinical trial, designed by Massey principal investigator Ray Lee, M.D., Ph.D., involves a novel targeted therapeutic agent developed by BioCancell of Jerusalem and will offer new hope for one of the most difficult-to-treat cancers.

This collaboration is a tangible outcome of the initiative launched by the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park more than a year ago to recruit Israeli life science companies with innovative products and technologies to Virginia and the Research Park, said Robert T. Skunda, President and CEO of the research park.

The world, indeed, is getting flatter, said Donna Edmonds, executive director of the Virginia Israel Bioscience Commercialization Center. By importing and exporting high-quality medical research and building collaborative clinical studies such as this, we can work toward saving more lives of people with cancer in Virginia and across the globe.

Gordon D. Ginder, M.D., director of the VCU Massey Cancer Center, said, Having an organization dedicated to promoting Virginias academic, clinical and biotechnological expertise is a boon to the Commonwealth. As federal funding for cancer research in the United States has shrunken in the face of expanding scientific opportunities for better treatment and prevention, its vital that we explore international collaborations and funding sources, too. We are grateful to the VIBCC for serving as a beacon to guide international funding and research opportunities to us.

About Pancreatic Cancer

About 30,000 people die from pancreatic cancer each year. It has a high mortality rate and ranks as the fourth leading cause of cancer-related death as its symptoms often do not present until the disease is in a late stage. Fewer than 5 percent of patients survive for more than five years, giving pancreatic cancer the lowest survival rate of any common cancer type.

Currently the best treatment option for pancreatic cancer is through high-risk surgical removal of part of the pancreas. However, if the cancer affects surrounding vessels and lymph nodes, surgery often is not an option. Chemotherapy and radiation provide alternative treatment options, however, the median survival rate on those protocols is just one year.

About the Clinical Trial

This study involves a novel, gene-based therapy for pancreatic cancer developed by BioCancell. Its new therapeutic agent links a DNA fragment that is responsible for tumor-specific expression of a gene, with a suicidal toxin gene. When the agent is injected directly into the tumor, the DNA fragment will induce the expression of the suicidal toxin in the cancer cells but not in normal tissue. The researchers expect to avoid damaging normal tissue while killing tumor cells.

Candidates for the study are adults with locally advanced pancreatic cancer who are not candidates for immediate surgical resection. Researchers will inject the new agent into cancer directly through a laparoscopic procedure.

Using this approach in pancreatic cancer, they hope that tumors could be down-staged from unresectable status, or inoperable, to resectable, giving patients a better chance of remission.

This agent has been tested and shown to be effective in animal models and anecdotally in two metastatic cancer patients in Israel. The liver lesions of those two patients showed success in shrinkage.

Beginning in the summer of 2008, Massey expects to begin enrolling patients. Lee is the principal investigator, and Brian Kaplan, M.D., a surgical oncologist at Massey, will be the co-principal investigator performing the laparoscopic surgery. Abraham Czerniak, M.D., Ph.D., of Sheba Medical Center, Ramat Gan, Israel, will be responsible for the Israeli arm of the study, which expects to enroll one-third of the total patient base.


Contact: Andrea Butler
Virginia Commonwealth University

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