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New cancer medicine extends terminally-ill patients’ lives in early trials

Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and a university spin-off company, APIM Therapeutics, have developed a promising cancer drug that targets only cancer cells.

While NTNU has been responsible for the basic research, APIM Therapeutics has used the basic research to develop the medicine, which took 18 years to develop.

The medicine has now been tested on 20 terminally ill cancer patients in Australia who had exhausted all available treatments and chose to try the new experimental option as a last resort.

The findings of the trial published in the cancer research journal, Oncogene, showed that 70% of the patients who tested the medicine were stable after six weeks. While 12 continued the medication and were stable for 18 weeks. One woman took the medication for 17 months and was stable for over two years.

Prof Marit Otterlei, professor of molecular medicine at NTNU who is behind all the research said, “Cancer cells are more stressed than other cells. However, they don’t die but continue to grow even when they are damaged. Conventional cancer treatment with chemotherapy puts more stress on the cancer cells so that the cells eventually do die. Chemotherapy affects all cells, including the normal ones, such as in the hair follicles, and thus affects the whole body with many side effects like hair loss.”

The new cancer medicine that Otterlei has developed is called ATX-101, which only works on stressed cancer cells, and leaves the other healthy cells in the body alone, as a result of which the cancer patients avoid losing their hair, the researchers said.

“ATX-101 can be used as the only treatment. It can stabilise cancer as shown in the recently published studies, but the medicine can also help chemotherapy work even better so that you do not have to have so much of it,” says Otterlei.

Otterlei and the team were able to create the medicine after many years of repeated trial and error and have obtained a patient for it.

The development has now entered Phase 2. The testing in Australia (Phase 1) needed to show that the medicine was not toxic. Phase 2 needs to establish the effectiveness of the medicine, which is currently ongoing.

The medicine will now be tested on patients with sarcoma, a type of connective tissue cancer, in the United States, while it will be tested on ovarian cancer patients in Australia, the researchers said adding that clinical trials are being conducted alongside chemotherapy.

Pointing out that even if the results from the trials are good, the way forward remains uncertain, Prof Otterlei. Satated, “A lot of medicines might work but don’t make it through the development process. The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t take on any projects they can’t profit from. What we develop has to work slightly better than current treatments, and preferably be cheaper to produce and have fewer side effects. Only then can an expensive development run pay off. It’s been a long run, and there’s still a long way to go,” she added.

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