My earliest experience in cancer research came during my first years of medical school. Working in a pharmacology laboratory, I studied the biology and toxicity of a class of drugs known as nitrosoureas. My observations were published in a series of articles in the journal Cancer Research.
Several years later, as an oncology fellow, I had the opportunity to test this hypothesis, and it worked. I reported my first observations in leukemia patients in 1984, a successful study that proved that relapsed leukemia patients could be effectively treated when the drugs were first selected in the laboratory. (Nagourney, R et al, Accurate prediction of response to treatment in leukemia utilizing a vital dye exclusion chemosensitivity technique. Proc ASCO abs # 208, 1984)
Unfortunately, this was an era when the field of in vitro chemosensitivity testing had fallen on hard times. A negative study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, using a growth-based assay endpoint, soured the community on the concept and our cell-death based assay results fell upon deaf ears.
Yet, I knew it worked. And, based upon my continued efforts in the field, I developed the EVA/PCD® functional profiling platform that we use today.
With response rates two to three fold higher than national averages, and successes that include the development for the most widely used treatments for low grade lymphoma and CLL (Nagourney, R et al Br J Cancer 1993), recurrent ovarian cancer (Gyn Onc 2003) and refractory breast cancer (J Clin Oncol 2000), the question really should be why doesn’t everyone do assays for their patients?
The work afforded me the opportunity to interact directly with some of the country’s leading cancer investigators. Many of the fellows with whom I worked went on to famous careers in academia and the biotech industry.
I remember the rather dismal outcomes of patients treated in the early 80s; but I felt confident that there had to be a better way to treat cancer patients than just throwing drugs at them and hoping they worked.