MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to "Metro Connection." This week our theme is trial and error. And thus far, we've been focusing on the courts, you know, legal trials. Well, now we're gonna talk medicine. About seven years ago a university laboratory developed technology for the first vaccine for Human Papillomavirus or HPV. That's the virus that can lead to cervical cancer. The lab is run by Dr. Richard Schlegel at Georgetown's Department of Pathology. And now, Dr. Schlegel and his team appear to have made another big discovery, one that could eventually change how doctors treat cancer. Jonathan Wilson met up with Dr. Schlegel in his office to learn what the lab's latest medical trial has revealed.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
How do you explain what your lab has accomplished most recently with, I believe it's called reprogrammed cells?
DR. RICHARD SCHLEGEL
Yeah, so the concept of reprogrammed cells or actually the finding the we have come upon is that we have a way to grow normal and tumor cells from a patient very rapidly and very efficiently, which hasn't been able to be accomplished before. The bottom line is, if you try and grow human cells it takes weeks and weeks and months to get them to continue to grow out. And most of those don't develop into stable cell lines. And in our case, we can do that very rapidly.
DR. RICHARD SCHLEGEL
And so what it allows us to do now is to go in and take a biopsy for example of someone's tumor, with a needle, for example, like a breast tumor biopsy. And within days have tumor cells growing out of there and normal cells, if you have a normal area, so that you can identify drugs that kill the tumor cells and not the normal cells. And that was the ultimate goal that we wanted to achieve in the beginning.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that what you are able to do with these cells, because of the techniques that your lab has developed, was to try different techniques on these tumor cells that then you could be more confident, could work on the patient. Is that correct?
That's right. So the critical thing for us, and in the cast that we published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is taking a biopsy of a patient who had a lung tumor, growing that out, growing out some of his normal lung tissues, and this was a very unusual lung tumor. I won't go into the details, but there was no defined therapy for it. And so we were able to screen drugs that we thought might be useful and were able to identify one that killed the tumor cells and not the normal cells and take that back to the clinicians and say, well, we're not sure if it will work, but in tissue culture it worked.
And they used it in the patient and they got the same results in the patient that we got in the laboratory.
If you had not had this technique and up until now doctors haven't, doctors basically try a bunch of different things to see if they'll work. And sometimes it's too late?
Yeah, that's exactly the problem, is that the way it works you may have a drug that's known to say, treat a lung tumor. In most cases you'll get a response, but they come back. And then it becomes a game of oncology experimentation. I hate to say that, but, you know, you don’t know what's going to work, but you try another drug on the patient. And if it works, good. If it doesn't, you go onto another one. The bad thing about that is every time you use a new drug on a patient there's a lot of toxicity associated with it. So with each different round of chemotherapy the patient gets sicker and sicker.
And so what we're able to do with this, we hope, when it gets tested in much larger trials, is to use the laboratory to define the spectrum of drugs that would be good to use in the patient and avoid all of the toxicities.
One thing that I've heard mentioned in connection with this discovery is personalized medicine. Is this something that could really further the idea of personalizing cancer treatment?
Yeah, I mean that is our ultimate goal, actually, is to make cancer therapy a personalized therapy. We are not going to just take a drug off the shelf, drug X is best for this population of patients who have lung tumors. We will actually take your tumor and find out what drug is best for you. And that's the ultimate goal.
After the Papillomavirus vaccine you thought you were gonna wind things down with your career. Has this changed things?
Yeah, like I said, it's been a dramatic change for me because I thought after the Papillomavirus vaccine we would continue to work on HPV because it's involved in some other tumors that are very important, like oral cancers. But with this developing, all of a sudden it's sort of like -- not a mid-life crisis, but a late-life crisis, where all of a sudden we've got much more to do and it's gonna be very hard to stop.
Well, you've got to tell your lab to slow down and stop making discoveries.
That was Dr. Richard Schlegel speaking with "Metro Connection's" Jonathan Wilson. And by the way, Dr. Schlegel and his researchers say it could be years before further studies of this technique are completed. So with that caveat noted, if you'd like more information on this new research you can find links on our website, MetroConnection.org.
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