Each day, we hear a lot about developments in cancer research. New treatments, steps made toward stopping the spread of the disease, and progress on eliminating the disease, to name a few.
But what about stopping cancer before it even starts?
It’s an idea that brought together an interdisciplinary team from the University of Minnesota’s Schools of Medicine and Dentistry who are members of the Masonic Cancer Center. Together, they’re pioneering research on the affects of Pioglitazone—an FDA-approved drug—on stopping the development of cancer.
Pioglitazone is a prescription drug used by many with type 2 diabetes. It genetically engineers cells in the pancreas so that they continue producing insulin. In other words—it helps healthy cells stay healthy, and keeps them from morphing into cells that don’t produce insulin.
And if Pioglitazone works for cells in the pancreas of those with type 2 diabetes, researchers wonder if it’ll work for other diseases in the body—in particular, oral leukplakia which is a pre-cancerous condition.
“Cancer develops with a whole series of molecular events, it isn’t just a light switch that goes off.” said Nelson Rhodus, D.M.D., M.P.H., a co-principle investigator on the study.
“Oral cancer actually starts as a benign oral lesion called leukoplakia. Over time this benign lesion can develop into cancer.”
By measuring biomarkers in saliva, Rhodus, Frank Ondrey, M.D., Ph.D., and Timothy Griffin, Ph.D., monitor the different stages of oral cancer development. If a participant in their study appears to be on track for developing oral cancer, the researches can enroll them in the clinical trial with Pioglitazone.
“In a way, we’re hoping to change the destiny of the cells,” said Rhodus. “If it looks like it might be differentiating into a cancerous cell, we want to use Pioglitazone to stop that from happening.”
The phase-2 clinical trial which is supported by the National Cancer Institute showed promising results: about 80 percent of the leukoplakias decreased and the clinical trial participants did not develop cancer. And now, a multicenter, phase-three clinical trial is underway. With roughly 200 participants, this multi-center clinical trial will hopefully prove to be even more successful than the first.
“We want to stop cancer before it develops,” said Rhodus. “And if we can stop oral cancer from developing with Pioglitazone, it might open doors for prevention of other types of cancer, too.”
-- Emily Jensen