New Delhi, Oct. 17: Research studies led by an Indian-origin scientist in the US have bolstered hopes of a novel treatment for pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal of human malignancies.
Cancer researcher Ashok Saluja at the University of Minnesota and his colleagues have chemically tweaked a compound extracted from a Chinese plant and demonstrated that it can dramatically increase the life-span of mice with pancreatic tumours.
Their studies based on test-tube experiments and mice models suggest that the compound called triptolide is “highly effective” in curbing growth and spread of pancreatic tumours. The results of their studies appeared today in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
In one set of tests, mice with pancreatic tumours treated with the chemically modified triptolide continued to live for 335 days, or almost 10-fold longer than the average 36-day survival period of untreated mice.
“Pancreatic cancer is among the worst cancers known to humankind,” Saluja said. Patients diagnosed with the disease survive on average for just six months, and only 5 per cent are expected to survive for up to five years.
“Current approved therapies increase the survival periods of patients by only a few weeks — the promise of a novel therapy in such a dismal disease therefore brings new hope,” Saluja told The Telegraph over the phone.
Triptolide was first extracted in 1972 from a perennial plant used in traditional Chinese medicine for arthritic pains. Independent studies over the years have shown that it has anti-inflammatory and immuno-suppressive activities.
Saluja said the results of the animal experiments appeared to justify progression towards clinical trials in humans. “We’re hoping the first set of clinical trials can be done in about six months,” he said.
The Minnesota team had earlier demonstrated that human pancreatic tumours show an increase in a protein called heat shock protein 70, or HSP70. They also found that triptolide suppresses HSP70. But triptolide didn’t dissolve in water. The researchers then chemically modified it to make it available as a water-soluble compound, a precondition for a substance to be evaluated as a drug.
Saluja and another Indian-origin scientist have co-founded a company in the US to develop the compound further and move it into clinical trials. The compound is likely to be manufactured in Hyderabad, Saluja said.
But scientists not connected with the research point out that while the results are promising, key tests are still awaited. The results so far do not provide any toxicology data, Sunil Hingorani and John Potter, two independent scientists said in a commentary in the same issue of Science Translational Medicine .
Hingorani and Potter have also pointed out that the drug was administered to the mice through injections in the stomach lining, a route not likely to be used in human patients.
Saluja, who was born in Punjab and studied biochemistry in Ludhiana before moving to the US for higher studies, led a team of 10 scientists among whom six are of Indian-origin. Team member Sulagna Banerjee, for instance, obtained a PhD from the Bose Institute, Calcutta, while Rohit Chugh and Vikas Dudeja are MBBS doctors from India now at the University of Minnesota.
Among other Indians in the team, Satish Patil and Veena Sangwan had completed their undergraduate studies in India and got their PhDs in the US, while Rajinder Dawra completed his PhD in India.