Category Archives: William C. Phelps

The Reflected Light of Steve Jobs: A Brighter Future for Pancreatic Cancer

By William C. Phelps, PhD

 

Back in May something amazing happened.  A 15-year-old high school freshman from Crownsville, MD, Jack Andraka, won the National Intel Science Fair for creating a more sensitive and much less expensive device to detect pancreatic cancer. This is a remarkable achievement for a high school freshman and could be a game-changing discovery for a deadly cancer if it proves successful in future clinical testing, expected to be a number of years away. Only a few months before that, 17-year-old Angela Zhang from Cupertino, CA, won the Siemens Prize for creating laser-activated nanoparticles which kill cancer cells.  Clearly, a bright light of innovation is growing in our next generation of young scientists.

Among the hundreds of different cancers that affect people today, perhaps none is more dreadful than pancreatic cancer. Doctors cannot easily detect it, nor are there effective treatments available for the majority of patients. We don’t fully understand what causes pancreatic cancer and we know very little about how it can be prevented. The disease is frighteningly aggressive in its growth, with patients often living less than a year after they’re diagnosed. Why has progress been so frustratingly slow for pancreatic cancer when compared with other forms of cancer?  In general, cancer is considered a very complex collection of diseases, and among cancers, pancreatic cancer is one of the more complicated.  It has been an unusually slow process to unravel the biological picture of pancreatic cancer.… Continue reading →

Cancer Drugs: Long Odds and Magic Bullets

By William C. Phelps, PhD

 

During 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved 30 completely new therapies (new molecular entities, as opposed to the modification of an old drug), 7 of which were for treatment of different types of cancer.  One of them, the lung cancer drug crizotinib, was decades in the making. For a new drug, that isn’t necessarily a lot of time.

Why does it take so long to get cancer treatments to the patients who need them? The answer lies both in the complexity of cancer and the complexity of the drug development and testing process. [more]

 

Seeking a ‘magic bullet’

A documentary film was released in 2006 called Penicillin: The Magic Bullet and it told the story of the remarkable discovery of what many consider medicine’s first great drug, which saved thousands of lives at the end of the Second World War. Penicillin was a magic bullet because it was extraordinarily safe and magically effective at killing bacteria that often caused lethal infections on the battlefield and beyond. 

It was within this context of hopeful expectations that cancer drug discovery got its start in the 1940s to find the magic bullet to kill cancer cells.… Continue reading →

Viruses, Bacteria, and Cancer, or It’s Not All Smoke and Sunlight

By William C. Phelps, PhD

How did you feel the last time someone sneezed in the elevator? Whether it is the common cold or the seasonal flu, we know some illnesses are caused by infections with viruses or bacteria. But what if cancer could be caused by an infection?

Some cancers caused by viruses and bacteria

Although it is not widely realized, 15%-20% of cancers around the world are caused by infectious agents – viruses or bacteria. Fortunately for all of us, the infectious agents linked to cancer are not easily spread from person to person like the common cold virus. It turns out, even when many of these viruses and bacteria infect people, only a small subset will go on to develop cancer. In most cases, we still do not understand why certain people develop cancer and others do not – even though they were also infected. [more]

A number of different types of infections can cause cancer. The Epstein-Barr virus can cause lymphomas (cancers of the lymphatic system) and nasopharyngeal cancer. Kaposi sarcoma virus causes a form of skin cancer in patients with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but only after HIV has already damaged the patient’s immune system.… Continue reading →

Cancer Research: It’s About Time

By William C. Phelps, PhD

 

The 1960s seems like yesterday to me.  The music, the cultural passion, and a Presidential assassination helped to sear time and place in my now gray-headed memory. During this time, two young scientists in Philadelphia, Dr. Peter Nowell from the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. David Hungerford from Fox Chase Cancer Center, spent their days peering through microscopes at white blood cells. They noticed that when they stained cells from patients with chronic myeloid leukemia (or chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML), they would very often see an odd, minute chromosome in addition to the normal set.

We know today in looking back that this was a landmark observation. Dr. Nowell and Dr. Hungerford named their discovery the “Philadelphia Chromosome” in keeping with the tradition of the day, and it soon became an important way to diagnose CML.

In the 1970s as we suffered through the disco era, Dr. Janet Rowley at the University of Chicago used newly developed techniques that highlighted different regions of chromosomes to look more carefully at the Philadelphia Chromosome. She determined that they looked odd because two large pieces of two different chromosomes had changed places. But the significance of that wasn’t immediately apparent.… Continue reading →