Beautiful kill: UVA doc takes aim at deadliest cancer
Glioma is the most common and deadly kind of brain cancer. Each year, 10,000 Americans are diagnosed, and only half survive beyond a year. Only a quarter after two years. But research at the University of Virginia has led to the discovery of a toxic molecule which targets the disease and might also be used to target other cancers.
"The potential of this research is extremely high" said Dr. Benjamin "B.J." Purow at a recent fundraiser for his research.
Since 1997, the owners of Hamilton's at First & Main restaurant have held a fundraising dinner for the UVA Cancer Center, and the seven-course affair on March 6 raised $10,000 for Purow's research. The restaurant that night was a veritable brain trust, filled to capacity with doctors, researchers, grad students, cancer survivors, those who had lost loved ones to the disease, and those simply willing to pony up for a good cause.
"Cancer is immensely complex," said Purow, a physician in UVA's Neuro-Oncology Center, "and we have had to lift up the hood and look at the circuitry of cells."
Purow's research focuses on toxic microRNAs, a newly discovered molecule in cells that has the potential to target cancerous cells without damaging the normal ones. Purow earned a $375,000 grant in 2008 for his glioma work.
He explained that current cancer therapies suffer from a whack-a-mole problem, "in that you whack one thing, and another one comes up." The various cancer-fighting "cocktails" used are sometimes too toxic and damage too many normal cells along with the cancer cells, he said.
MicroRNAs were thought to be communication devices in cells, but it was found that they regulate protein in cells, and that some can boost cancer, while others can suppress cancer. The goal, said the doctor, is to find a single microRNA that attacks multiple cancer targets.
"Of the microRNAs we found, one of them, RNA 297, was extremely toxic and had never been studied," said Purow, who described using it for a "beautiful kill" on glioma cells.
Given the audience, Purow was quick to put a human face on his work.
"When I see the integrity and grace in patients as they fight this," he said, "words are just inadequate to describe it."
"B.J. is a star in a constellation of stars," said UVA's cancer center director, Michael Weber. "He's made remarkable discoveries."
"Cures are going to be elusive," Purow cautioned. "But so far, so good."
"We would like to be a model for the country," said Medical School dean Steven T. DeKosky, himself a four-year cancer survivor. "And the cancer center is a model."
"Our project is very much in its infancy," said Purow, "but an event like this can really make a difference, to provide seed money, to get the research started."
"People ask me why I keep doing this," said Hamilton's co-owner Kate Hamilton. "Well, it's because it's what I can do. I was never good at biology, couldn't bear to dissect a frog, but I can put on a meal and bring people together."