Aired: August 2, 2019

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

A researcher looking into a microscope in a lab. Image source: Max Pixel. Licensed by CC0 1.0.

  • Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? (14 min.)

    With:  Deborah O’Dell (University of Mary Washington)

    Does the radiation emitted by our cell phones harm us?  Deborah O’Dell recently finished a study that found cell phone radiation can cause changes to our cells.

    Segment:
  • Sickness in the Blood (14 min.)

    With: Karen Ballen (University of Virginia Health Systems)

    In 2018, most people diagnosed with blood cancer can find a donor to help with their treatment. But not everyone. Karen Ballen has been working to expand the donor database and discover new ways to match donors to cancer patients.

    Segment:
  • It's Electric (14 min.)

    With: Richard Heller (Old Dominion University)

    New forms of electro-magnetic treatments are fighting deadly melanoma and show promise against other cancers. Richard Heller is a pioneer in the use of electro-gene-therapy and bio-electrics.

    Segment:
  • Healing from the Cure (10 min.)

    With: Kimberly Lane (Radford University)

    There’s a whole field of cancer research devoted just to developing medications that can help ease the punch of chemotherapy side effects. Kimberly Lane and her student team are researching ways to ease the side effects of a potent chemotherapy drug used for colon cancer.

    Segment:

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? August 3, 2019– printable transcript in PDF format here.

Sarah McConnell: Before we get started I want to ask you a question. Ready? Where is your cellphone? I bet you didn’t have to think too hard because it’s probably in your pocket or in your lap or on the table right in front of you. Or maybe it’s in your hand right now. These days cellphones are almost like an extra limb. They’re always right there. But … You knew there was a but coming. Some researchers say, keeping your cell on hand at all times could have bad health effects. It could even be related to cancer.

Deborah O’Dell: One of the worrying things is that cellphones do release some radiation even when they’re not being used.

Sarah McConnell: I’m Sarah McConnell and today on With Good Reason we’re taking a look at some of the latest research on cancer, how we get it, and how we treat it. First, we’re looking at the radiation from cellphones. Cellphones have completely integrated into our lives, but Deborah O’Dell, a professor of biology at the University of Mary Washington wants us to reconsider how close we keep this technology.

Sarah McConnell: Deborah, you and your students have been looking into whether the radiation from our cellphones is harming us. What have you found?

Deborah O’Dell: In a nutshell, what we found was that when cells are exposed to cellphone radiation that there are certain genes whose activity is changed as a result of this exposure. These genes that are changed are genes that help regulate the reproduction of cells. And of course cancer is produced when cells can’t regulate their growth and so they constantly reproduce themselves. And so by altering these genes, what we’re doing is altering the way those cells reproduce.

Sarah McConnell: You can’t say, we found cellphones cause cancer right?

Deborah O’Dell: Absolutely not. Yeah, we can’t say that.

Sarah McConnell: You simulated human tissue.

Deborah O’Dell: Yes.

Sarah McConnell: Smack dab up against a cellphone and then you measured these cells and genes within cells to see if they had been influenced by radiation.

Deborah O’Dell: That’s correct.

Sarah McConnell: Describe the setup.

Deborah O’Dell: Okay. The setup started by culturing cells and we divided the cells up into different groups. So we had little dishes, multiple dishes of cells for each group. And then we would take each dish of cells and place it on our little human head model.

Sarah McConnell: Made out of what?

Deborah O’Dell: It was made out of actual human bone from our anatomy lab. A piece of meat and some chicken skin that the thickness was the same as the area in our head where we would normally have our cellphones located.

Sarah McConnell: That’s fascinating. You made a little faux head.

Deborah O’Dell: We did. We did. And then we put the cellphone on one side, the cells on the other, and then just activated the cellphone for 25 minutes for each dish. And we did that for every single dish except for our control dishes which did not get the cellphone radiation. We then extracted molecules out of the cells that would tell us what genes were being activated or deactivated.

Sarah McConnell: What did you think you’d find?

Deborah O’Dell: Well, I had an inkling that we would find some kind of change in gene activity. I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of changes we would see and so some of our results did surprise me.

Sarah McConnell: Surprise and alarm?

Deborah O’Dell: Surprise and alarm, yes.

Sarah McConnell: What’d you find?

Deborah O’Dell: We found that a single episode of 25 minute cellphone activity can cause significant change in some of these genes. This change persists up to at least 24 hours and in some genes we even see it persisting to 48 hours after just a single exposure.

Sarah McConnell: So why wouldn’t I think to myself, okay so cellphone radiation is affecting my genes but it dies off after a couple of days so I’m okay?

Deborah O’Dell: But, you don’t use your cellphone once every two days. What I’m afraid of … And I haven’t tested this. But that these changes are not being permitted to go back to their original state. The genes are not allowed to maintain their basic activity but rather by continually activating them, we’re causing them to change persistently. And that could then lead to changes in how cells reproduce themselves leading to them maybe to tumors. There are some genes that are well known and well associated with cancer. The BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes, which are associated with breast cancer and prostate cancer. These genes, their function is actually to slow down or restock cell reproduction. Well, cellphone radiation actually stops the activity of those genes. And by doing so, would tend to promote cell reproduction.

Sarah McConnell: Yeah, but we’re holding cellphones to our head, not to breasts or prostate areas.

Deborah O’Dell: Well yes we can be. I’ve seen a lot of young ladies that have held their cellphones in their bras. And one of the worrying things is that cellphones do release some radiation even when they’re not being used.

Sarah McConnell: What about if they’re turned off?

Deborah O’Dell: If they’re turned off, it’s not a problem. But who turns off their cellphone these days? A lot of people don’t turn off the cellphone.

Sarah McConnell: Is there more radiation if you have a 3G versus a 4G versus 5G?

Deborah O’Dell: No. Because the maximum amount that is allowed is the same regardless of what you have. And I haven’t tested all of those different phones but the maximum amount is actually an average, a mean amount. And as cellphones are being used sometimes it puts out less radiation, but a lot of times it can put out more radiation. In my study we saw some spikes in radiation as the phone was being used that came up to be about three to four times the average allowable maximum.

Sarah McConnell: Who led the way on regulating how much radiation could be allowed to be admitted from cellphones?

Deborah O’Dell: The initial studies actually came out of studies in Europe. I think Sweden was probably one of the first countries to really look at this. And so they were the first ones to regulate the radiation levels. And then the United States then followed suit. And of course this has all been done because of studies that were done in Europe on cellphone radiation and trying to associate it with incidents of brain cancer.

Sarah McConnell: Have there been a number of studies trying to look at whether cellphones cause cancer?

Deborah O’Dell: There have been a number of studies that have been done since cellphones essentially first came out. The studies are all contradictory. There is no one consensus of whether cellphones actually cause cancer. And I think what the issue with these other studies has been is that they’re actually looking for the presence of cancers as a result of cellphone radiation. And that’s where my and my student’s studies have differed. We’re not looking for the presence of cancer per se, but we’re looking for changes in genes that could potentially lead to cancer.

Sarah McConnell: What would you like to see as a next step? Are there any dream experiments that you would like to see done that may take this a step further?

Deborah O’Dell: Well, there have been some long term studies. Certainly there’s been a report of a 20 year study, again, looking at do people who use cellphones develop tumors? I don’t think our studies have been long term enough. I think certainly long term studies need to be examined. There are some things that I certainly would not do with a cellphone. I would not listen to a conversation. I try to limit my conversations as much as possible. Use texting. I would not give them to children. Because the young children, they’re going to have the longest exposure.

Sarah McConnell: What if we gave them to children but gave them earbuds or headsets?

Deborah O’Dell: That would be a good way to deal with it. Keep it away from your body. Keep it as far away as possible from any tissues that might be sensitive to the radiation.

Sarah McConnell: Do you think young people are more vulnerable because they’re still in a growth stage?

Deborah O’Dell: That is absolutely a concern. Because these genes that are influenced are genes that are normally active when we are growing and developing. So when we’re in utero we certainly use them, as children and adolescents we use these genes. Even use them now when we want to, for example, repair our skin. So these genes are useful. Children however are going to have these genes being much more active than adults. And so I think that children would be much more susceptible to the influences of this kind of radiation.

Sarah McConnell: Does your concern about cellphone use extend to your broader concern about cellphone towers and low levels of radiation that all of us may be exposed to via high power lines?

Deborah O’Dell: Absolutely. Because the human body has been adapted to a certain environment here on earth. And then when we started building houses and putting electricity in, what we’ve started to do is concentrate electromagnetic radiation in ways that we haven’t been adapted for. And so with the proliferation of cellphones and cellphone towers, I look at it as an increase in electromagnetic pollution. And it’s pollution that we can’t see. We can see water pollution, we can see air pollution, we can look at plastic bags along the side of the road and see that. But because these waves, these radiation waves are invisible to our eyes, we ignore them. But I think more and more as we’re putting up these towers, as we’re using these devices more, we’re setting ourselves up for increasing our exposures in ways that our bodies haven’t been adapted to and that’s what the problem is.

Sarah McConnell: Well Deborah O’Dell, this is a fascinating study and I’m so grateful you talked to me on With Good Reason.

Deborah O’Dell: Well thank you Sarah, it was lovely to be here.

Sarah McConnell: Deborah O’Dell is a professor of biology at the University of Mary Washington.

Sarah McConnell: In 2019 almost everyone diagnosed with blood cancer can find a donor to help with their treatment. That’s incredible success thanks to people like Karen Ballen. Karen’s a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and section chief of Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplants at UVA Health. She says even though we’ve come a long way in treating blood cancers, there’s still work to be done. Karen, you are treating only patients with blood cancers. What are the major blood cancers?

Karen Ballen: The major blood cancers that we treat are people with acute leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, a disease called myelodysplasia, which is kind of a pre-leukemia. And blood cancers preferentially affect young people so we are caring for a lot of young people.

Sarah McConnell: Why do you think young people? It’s just so counter to what we expect with cancer.

Karen Ballen: You know we don’t really know why people get blood cancers. It’s not related to anything you eat or do, whether you smoke or drink. They don’t run in families. And we’re still really trying to learn why certain people are affected with blood cancers. And you know 10 or 20 years ago, you might hear that you had cancer and it was a death sentence, but the survival rate has improved dramatically. And so people who have a diagnosis of cancer, there is a lot of reason for hope.

Sarah McConnell: What are some of the major improvements we’ve made very recently in boosting survival with the blood cancers?

Karen Ballen: Well there’s a number of things. One is, chemotherapy used to be really awful with people vomiting and now people get chemotherapy … It’s no fun, but the side effects can be managed. We have better drugs to manage the side effects and that allows us to give chemotherapy more safely. The other thing that’s improved is the way we do bone marrow or stem cell transplantation. And that’s one of the things that my research focuses on.

Sarah McConnell: What is the difference between bone marrow and stem cell transplantation?

Karen Ballen: That is a great question. Because those of us that have been in the field a long time always kind of say bone marrow transplant. The bone marrow kind of lives in all of our bones. It’s kind of like if you think about a chicken bone, sort of the meaty portion. And that gives rise to all of our blood cells. So our white blood cells that fight infection, our red blood cells that carry oxygen, and the platelets that help to clot the blood. Many of the transplants that we do now are from the blood. There’s no surgery involved. The cells are collected from the blood and then they’re given back through the blood. One is what we call an autologous transplant, meaning using your own cells. And that type of transplant is usually for people that have lymphoma or Hodgkin’s disease, or multiple myeloma. In that case the patients own cells are collected and stored in the freezer. And then the patient gets high doses of chemotherapy to wipe out any remaining cancer cells. And then those cells that were stored in the freezer are given back to the patient so that their own blood counts come up in the system.

Karen Ballen: The other type of transplant is a donor transplant. Where the donor, could be your brother or sister, could be a volunteer donor, is used to replace that patient’s abnormal blood counts and immune system. And we use that often in people with leukemia.

Sarah McConnell: How hard is it to find a donor?

Karen Ballen: So that’s a great question because 10 or 20 years ago it was very difficult to find a donor. And particularly for patients who are minority patients, often very difficult to find a donor. So in a family each brother and sister has a 25% chance of being a full match and being a donor. So for instance, if you live in Pakistan, your chance of having a donor in a family is very high because the families are very large. If you live in China, the chance might be low, because the families are small. So here in the US about 30% of patients will have a match donor in their family.

Sarah McConnell: You in particular have done a lot of research trying to improve finding donors.

Karen Ballen: Absolutely. And that is one of the big advances that I’ve seen in my career and something that we’re really proud of that we’ve been able to help a lot more people by expanding the pool of donors. So for people that don’t have a donor in their family, and that’s most people, they look for a donor in the registry. Something that we call Be The Match or The National Marrow Donor Program. And for people who are interested in being a donor, it’s just a cheek swab and you can enter into the registry. So no blood has to be drawn. And we’re particularly interested in finding young donors. Young donors seem to be better donors, to enter the registry. And there’s over 25 million donors in the registry worldwide.

Sarah McConnell: So let’s say someone taps you, you’re in the registry and someone says, “Happy news, you are a match for someone who needs you.” What do you need to give?

Karen Ballen: Right. So if you do match someone, the first thing is that you will go in for a counseling session and you’ll meet with someone in your local community that will be able to tell you a little bit about what the donation process is like. You may have some additional blood drawn. And then you can make a choice about whether you wish to go ahead with the donation or not. And there’s basically two ways to donate. One is cells from the blood and the other is cells from the bone marrow. Most of the transplants that we do now are cells from the blood. But for some diseases a donor may be requested to give cells from the bone marrow and that is a little bit more extensive procedure to donate.

Sarah McConnell: Cells from the blood is just no biggie right?

Karen Ballen: Correct.

Sarah McConnell: So everyone should be willing to do that.

Karen Ballen: Well, we really encourage people to join the registry and if people want more information the website is bethematch.org.

Sarah McConnell: If you are going to donate your bone marrow however, that’s a real procedure and it can be painful.

Karen Ballen: Correct. To donate bone marrow does require an operation and it can be painful. Donors are given pain medication afterwards. And that’s why all the donors do go in for a counseling session before they agree to donate. Particularly the registry actually started in England, and so the donors in the registry are mostly people of northern European background who’s … They live here in the US but maybe their ancestry is Irish or Scotch or English or German. What we really need more in the registry is people of African American descent, Hispanic donors, people of eastern European descent, or middle eastern, because preferentially there aren’t enough donors in the registry to accommodate patients with that diverse background. Because of that there are two new ways of being a donor that’s really expanded access to transplant. One of those is using a family member who’s a half match. And if you remember high school genetics, your parents, whether you like it or not, are a half match to you, and your children. So many people are able to have a half match, either a parent or a child or maybe a brother or sister, even a first cousin might be a half match. And so that is opening up the pool of donors.

Karen Ballen: And there’s also another way using blood from the umbilical cord. So when you have a baby, normally that afterbirth or placenta normally gets thrown out after you have a baby but that also contains the building blocks for all of the blood cells. And there is about a million of these cord blood units stored worldwide in freezers throughout the world. And because the cells come from a newborn baby they don’t have to match as closely as cells that come from an adult. So that’s another way of doing a transplant and that’s actually what my research has focused on. And I’m happy to say that my son is also a cord blood donor.

Sarah McConnell: Really. What happens if you donate your cord blood? Where does it go? Who keeps it?

Karen Ballen: So when you’re pregnant it may be that your obstetrician or someone that works in your obstetrician’s office may approach a pregnant woman to talk about cord blood donation. And this is what we call public banking, so this is donating the cord blood that is for public use. Just like if you donated a unit of blood, you don’t know where it goes, it just goes. The same thing with the cord blood. Once it’s collected it’s stored in freezers at a very cold temperature and it lasts for many many years in the freezer.

Sarah McConnell: But if you say I want to donate my baby’s umbilical cord, might they say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have the resources.”

Karen Ballen: Unfortunately not every hospital is equipped with all the regulatory and other resources needed to collect the baby’s cord blood, which is too bad, because many many mothers would be willing to do it. And that’s partly based on finances and regulation set by the FDA. So there are websites that can explore, like the Be The Match will have where the donor cord blood banks are that might be close in your area.

Sarah McConnell: How key are these cord blood donations? In other words, how important are they to people who have leukemia or one of these other blood cancers?

Karen Ballen: Well, a transplant is often the only lifesaving therapy for many of these patients. And the toughest thing is if you know someone needs a transplant but they can’t find a donor. So by using these cord blood units or some of the other techniques that I mentioned, we’re now really able to find a donor for almost everyone. And that gives a chance, a hope, for patients with blood cancer to receive curative therapy, life sustaining therapy.

Sarah McConnell: How many lives do you think have been saved through these?

Karen Ballen: Well, with cord blood transplants we’ve saved about 25,000 patients, many of whom are children using these new techniques. Overall there’s over 100,000 transplants done each year.

Sarah McConnell: What other advances have there been in this field?

Karen Ballen: One of the very exciting things that we’re working on is cells of the immune system, what we call immunotherapy. It’s using our cells, our own cells of the immune system to help fight cancers. And basically that’s a way of taking the patient’s own cells that are removed. They go into a laboratory, and they’re kind of engineered to come back into the patient and fight their cancer by recognizing proteins that just the cancer cells have and normal cells don’t have. And so I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about that over the next few years. But that’s a very new way of treating these blood cancers.

Sarah McConnell: How effective is this treatment so far? What have we seen in the trials?

Karen Ballen: Well so far its been very exciting. Especially for children and young people that have leukemia. And most of the patients in these trials have failed many other treatments. That this is really their last chance. And the remission rates have been very high. About 70 to 80%. So it’s very encouraging, we’re still learning about it and learning some of the side effects of the treatment, but it is one of the things that we’re very excited about.

Sarah McConnell: How do you know you have a blood cancer? What tend to be the first signs?

Karen Ballen: So a lot of people present by being very tired. And of course if you ask 50 people in they’re tired, probably 45 would say yes. So sometimes the symptoms are very nonspecific and sometimes it can take a while or a couple of different doctor visits to figure out exactly what is going on. Another side effect that people might present with might be bleeding or infection, a sore that doesn’t get better quick enough. For instance, with children who have leukemia, sometimes they’ll come into the emergency room and they’ll have bruising. And what do you think about if you see a child who’s all bruised?

Sarah McConnell: They’ve been abused.

Karen Ballen: Exactly. And there’s actually been some lawsuits about that. And so of course it’s not that common, but occasionally a child might actually have a blood cancer. And so there is a battery of blood tests that need to be done if there’s a young child with bruising.

Sarah McConnell: For most people who end up with a diagnosis of one of these blood cancers, is it usually something that took a while to get to? Do general practitioners generally not come to it fairly quickly?

Karen Ballen: Well I think that’s true and that’s not to lay blame anywhere because again, the symptoms, headache, being tired, are very common. But one other thing Sarah, is unlike other cancers that are treated with surgery where it’s very important to get to the cancer early because it has to be taken out, we don’t really have that issue with blood cancers because they are traveling through the blood stream. So it’s not necessary that they have to be picked up at a very early stage. And so that’s important for patients to remember. That even if it took a few weeks or a few months to get to medical attention or to see an oncologist or to get a diagnosis, many times those diseases can still be cured.

Sarah McConnell: Karen Ballen is a professor of medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and section chief of Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplants at UVA Health.

Sarah McConnell: This is With Good Reason. We’ll be right back.

Sarah McConnell: Welcome back, this is With Good Reason. There’s a surprising new technique being tried against some of the worst cancers that’s showing promising results in early trials. Our next guest is Richard Heller, a renowned cancer researcher, and pioneer in the use of electro gene therapy and bioelectrics. He’s also Director of the Frank Reidy Center for Bioelectrics at Old Dominion University.

Sarah McConnell: Richard, six years ago you pioneered the use of extremely fast electrical pulses to treat cancer tumors in people with late stage melanoma. And the results of that first small trial were exciting. This technique has progressed from there.

Richard Heller: Yes. So the initial work that we looked at was to try and figure out if there was a way to excite the patient’s immune system to attack the tumor using an agent. Interleukin 12 is the name of the agent. And we thought the best way to deliver it safely was to use electric fields to get that DNA into the cells and we were successful in doing that. The real interesting aspect of it in that early trial was that a few of the patients that were treated, that not only did the tumors that we treated go away, but tumors that we didn’t treat went away and those patients remained tumor free for a large number of years. A matter of fact, one of them is still tumor free more than eight years later.

Sarah McConnell: And this is the very scary melanoma cancer tumors.

Richard Heller: Yes. This is late stage melanoma. Unfortunately most of the patients in that trial succumbed to the disease, which is unfortunately not unusual with melanoma. There are different doses of the agent that you use and so in that case not everybody got that dose that we found to be the best. Now in subsequent trials we were then focused in on the dose that we thought would work the best. And there we had more patients that started getting that same type of response where not only did the treated tumors go away, but the untreated tumors went away. So this was really exciting because now we were looking at something that could work really well.

Sarah McConnell: You are no longer directly involved with the melanoma trials but they did go on to a clinical phase two. That has ended, correct? And I understand from a press release from that trial that a number of patients who responded are still responding well.

Richard Heller: That’s correct. So this was taken over by a company in San Diego called OncoSec and they had several patients become tumor free. And their latest study, which was a phase two, found that 50% of the patients treated had responded. And actually they found that these were durable responses and that it’s out now over 20 months and those patients still are responding. They have not recurred.

Sarah McConnell: Is that exciting?

Richard Heller: That’s extremely exciting. Actually now you’re getting to a point where this again is sort of unexpected to see something that high of a response rate, especially in late stage melanoma patients. And I also believe they have received fast track status from the FDA and have started a registration trial for it, which is another exciting aspect because that would mean it may not be too long before this is FDA approved and in general use.

Sarah McConnell: I feel very grateful to the way your mind works and the minds of others who are joining in to do something like this. I can remember a decade ago hearing about people with melanoma who had very few options.

Richard Heller: Yes, that is very true. And it was difficult to actually see that kind of. Because I was at that time, if you think about 10, 15 years ago, I was at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa working as part of the cutaneous oncology group. And I would hear the medical oncologists and the surgical oncologists talk about their frustrations because they really didn’t have any weapons to be able to battle this disease and it was such a nasty disease and is a nasty disease that once it starts to spread it’s devastating to people.

Sarah McConnell: More recently your researchers have been finding that electric pulses can be used to kill tumor cells without adding in the DNA or drug therapy injections.

Richard Heller: That’s correct. So that’s whole other exciting area. So in this case we’re using actually much shorter pulses. Nanosecond pulses. Within a heartbeat you would have three million nanoseconds. That’s how short these pulses are and we can do different things to cells. So we can tell a cancer cell that it’s time to die and go through a process called apoptosis. So this is a natural cell death. And this is some of the problems with cancer cells is that they don’t want to believe that it’s time for them to die and so they just continue to grow and move along their merry way. Now with these nanosecond pulses, we can apply this to tumors and these tumors just start to die. And the other exciting thing about this is that because of the way they’re dying, there’re certain signals that get put out by these cells that can stimulate the immune system as well. And so we are very much investigating this now. We know for sure, at least in the preclinical models, that when you treat the tumors this way you can prevent new tumors from forming.

Richard Heller: And now we’re trying to see is there a way to actually treat one tumor and see another tumor go away? And this is very exciting work being done at the Center for Bioelectronics at ODU, predominately by Steven Beebe and Siqi Guo. Doing some really fantastic work and we are collaborating with a company in San Francisco called Pulse Biosciences, that are going to try and move this into the clinic at some point. That’s the thought and hope about that.

Sarah McConnell: Well what’s remarkable to me is the idea that electrical pulses, something as in some ways as simple and direct is that, could be such an answer.

Richard Heller: It is amazing. When you actually show somebody how it can work they do look at it as look how simple this is. You don’t realize how much it took to develop the technology to figure out how to build the generators that can allow you to apply these pulses or the electrodes that actually you have to put around or into the tissue to administer the pulses. But it becomes very simple and it would be easy for a clinician to utilize it for the nanoseconds. All they have to do is basically place the electrode properly and then press a button. For the delivery they have to do an injection and then place the electrode and press a button. And so it’s very elegant but very simple and that’s the nice thing about it. And I think in some respects people look at it and have a hard time believing that something that straightforward and simple could actually work as well as it does, because everybody expects these kinds of therapies to be very complicated. But they’re not really. I mean it’s based on principles of science and on ways other things are used and in a sense, a lot of ways that drug therapies are done. But in a lot of respects we can get those results but without all these bad side effects.

Sarah McConnell: What kinds of cancers do you suspect may ultimately be targeted with this kind of therapy? What are you starting to look at? It’s probably less melanoma and more something else?

Richard Heller: Yes. So in reality, with all this technology we can go after almost any solid tumor, provided we can figure out a way how to get to it and apply the electric pulses. We are working on devices that would allow us to go after internal tumors through a minimally invasive catheter system. This would be really effective say against something like pancreatic cancer or liver cancer, lung cancer. There’s also a lot of work being done on breast cancer. There’s some work being done on squamous cell carcinoma. And there’s also some investigation into melanoma as well.

Sarah McConnell: Any clinical trials yet for people with these forms of cancer and this kind of technology?

Richard Heller: Not yet with the nanosecond pulses. So there was one small trial that was done with basal cell carcinoma, which showed that the nanosecond pulses were safe to apply and they worked the way that we thought they would. This was a limited trial, but it does give a focus on that it is safe. Now I will also point out that with the IL-12-

Sarah McConnell: That’s the interleukin 12?

Richard Heller: The interleukin 12. OncoSec has also now started a trial on triple negative breast cancer and they’ve gotten some good results on that one. And I believe they’re also looking at some additional targets such as Merkel cell carcinoma and they may also be looking at some internal tumors as well.

Sarah McConnell: Where is the triple negative breast cancer trial?

Richard Heller: That one I believe is being done at University of California San Francisco.

Sarah McConnell: Right.

Richard Heller: I really do believe that the potential for this technology hasn’t even begun to even been reached. There’s so many things that can be done with it even beyond cancer with both the short pulses and the longer pulses. For example with cardiovascular disease there’s work being done with the nanosecond pulses. There’s work being done for treating atrial fibrillation and it’s being shown to be very effective in early models as well. So if you think about in the same way that these nanosecond pulses can destroy tumors, they could also be used to take out a node or a part of the heart muscle that’s not working properly. Say for example if somebody has coronary artery disease to where the blood flow is not working that well in the heart. Many times you can have angioplasty done, where they try to clean out the vessels or they might have to do a full bypass.

Richard Heller: So we’ve been working on a way of using, again, a gene approach in which we can try and get new vessels to grow in the heart. And actually this has worked fairly well in a preclinical model that we have done. We’ve also done this for peripheral vascular disease, where say you have poor blood flow in a limb like a leg or an arm. Many times the solution to that unfortunately ends up being amputation because they can’t get the circulation properly into that limb and so the tissue starts to die. And so we have found a way using what’s called angiogenic factors that cause new blood vessels to form. Or they can make existing blood vessels grow longer and into these areas of poor blood supply.

Sarah McConnell: So if somebody is suffering from this right now, is there any program they could be part of where they might have more hope than amputation?

Richard Heller: I wish I could say yes, but right now it’s still in that preclinical phase. We are looking for partners that we can work with that can help us fund the clinical trials and to get it started. And we probably will need to do a little bit more data to get the full proof that’s needed to allow us to do that.

Sarah McConnell: How hopeful and excited are you about the breakthroughs that you see us on the verge of now when it comes to using this technology and your team of creative researchers?

Richard Heller: I would say extremely excited. It’s amazing. It’s always great to walk into the center because you never know what idea is going to pop up. I would say the most frustrating thing would be that there’s so many things that we want to try and there’s just not enough of us to do it. I think there are places popping up around the country and around the world that are also working on this technology and expanding it. So I think the more people starting to work on it the better, because more things can get done, newer ideas can come up, new approaches, new ways of using it. And I think this is a technology that can help in a little of different areas.

Sarah McConnell: Dr. Richard Heller, thank you for talking with me today on With Good Reason.

Richard Heller: Sure. My pleasure.

Sarah McConnell: Richard Heller is executive director of the Frank Reidy Center for Bioelectrics at Old Dominion University.

Sarah McConnell: The most standard treatment for cancer, chemotherapy, often comes with hair loss, nausea, vomiting or fatigue. And some people experience cognitive problems known as chemo brain. But a whole field of cancer research is now dedicated just to developing treatments for the treatments. Medications that can help ease the punch of chemotherapy side effects. Our next guest is Kimberly Lane of Radford University. She’s a biochemistry professor trying to find a way to reduce the harmful effects of one therapy that is used only by people with advanced colon cancer. Kim, so many people are now in a generation trying to take the chemotherapy drugs we already have and reduce the ill effects. Would you say that’s sort of the urgency of your generation now?

Kimberly Lane: I think that’s a lot of it, is that we’ve sort of grown up assuming that there’s going to be a lot of side effects and that’s not necessarily going to have to be the case. There’s a lot of room for targeting so that we can get the drug just to the tumor itself and not have to target the whole body. Also in giving a second drug that cuts down on the side effects. There’s a lot of molecules that they’re using now as caging systems where you have the existing chemo drug, the one we’ve used for years, and then you can build another molecule around it that only opens up when you get to the tumor. And so you can time that or place it so that it’s only going to open when it’s right there where it needs to be.

Sarah McConnell: Let’s talk about the colon cancer therapy that you’ve targeted, that you’re researching now. You know that there is a chemotherapy treatment for advanced colon cancer, but that the treatment, the cure is so difficult on the patient.

Kimberly Lane: It is.

Sarah McConnell: It’s almost intolerable.

Kimberly Lane: It is. CPT-11 is the drug, but it’s really a prodrug, which basically if you think about a pen with a cap on it, that pen can’t write with the cap. The CPT-11 is the pen with the cap on. And when it gets into your body your liver can take the cap off and it turns it into a useful drug that acts as a cancer chemotherapy. That said, cancer chemotherapy drugs are generally toxic and your body’s trying to get rid of it. And one of the ways it gets rid of that drug is passing it through your intestine. We have a lot of bacteria that are part of us that have to be there, they’re healthy for us to have and they’re found everywhere. We have them on the surface of our skin, we’ve got them in the intestine, all over our bodies. Well, some of those bacteria have an enzyme, this protein that can take the cap back off and now you’ve put the toxic form of that molecule right back in the intestine again. Chemotherapy drugs, a lot of them target rapidly dividing cells and what you end up targeting as well are skin cells.

Kimberly Lane: This is why you have some of the side effects that you see with a lot of chemotherapies is skin cells that are softening off, they’re not getting replaced. You get a lot of … You don’t heal as well if you have a scratch. Red blood cells are always dividing. You’re making lots of new ones. If you can’t do that you get sick. You’re very tired all the time, you feel like you’re anemic.

Sarah McConnell: How helpful for late stage colon cancer patients is CPT-11 if let’s say it had no side effects?

Kimberly Lane: Oh goodness. You would end up seeing a lot more patients taking this medication. Because if you’re in late stage cancer as it is, you’re already pretty sick. And if you add in fairly severe intestinal damage, there are a lot of patients that really don’t end up wanting to go on that regimen. For years it’s been a drug of last resort, but if you could use this earlier on, it could probably save a lot more lives.

Sarah McConnell: And what sort of terrible side effects does CPT-11 have for patients?

Kimberly Lane: Well, you have a lot of intestinal damage. Basically your intestine is lined in skin cells. If you couldn’t make new ones, you would end up with basically lesions. You’d have open sores on your skin. It’s so painful that sometimes the patients have to be sedated to be even on this course of treatment.

Sarah McConnell: Now that’s just miserable isn’t it?

Kimberly Lane: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sarah McConnell: What is it that you’re targeting? You were looking at the E. coli bacteria that’s in us that’s usually good, not the bad stuff and how it is affecting this agent.

Kimberly Lane: Yes. There’s a lot of different bacteria in your gut. We knew that bacteria were taking the inactivated form of the drug and reactivating it, which was giving all these side effects. They weren’t sure exactly what was doing it. They just knew it was some of the bacteria so they started saying, “Well let’s just give everybody a lot of antibiotics. Let’s just knock out the gut bacteria all together.” Turns out that that’s not so good for you. These bacteria are necessary. They keep us healthy. They help us digest our food, they help us absorb nutrients, they keep us alive, they keep us healthy. And if we try to get rid of all of them we get sicker. And so you take someone who’s already sick with cancer and they’re getting chemotherapy so they have those side effects and now suddenly they’re getting even sicker from cutting out all of the good bacteria.

Kimberly Lane: So the more we can focus and really look at what the problem is in more detail and not just okay, let’s kill all of the bacterial cells, let’s figure out what type of bacteria it is and what in that bacteria is doing it. And so we are looking at one protein in that whole cell and it turns out if you slow down that one protein, you cut out some of the side effects and you don’t kill the bacteria so you don’t have the health problems and you don’t have the re-population with the bad bacteria. Everybody’s a lot healthier.

Sarah McConnell: So how have you been testing this out?

Kimberly Lane: So we already knew what protein was involved. So we took that protein, beta glucuronidase, and we took libraries of compounds. So we had all these different drug like molecules and looked to see what they would do. And we found a couple of good candidates, things that seemed to slow the protein down. And then we started looking at it in cells. Did it actually make it into the cell? Now they’ve even done studies in mice to see if it works in an entire body and it does and it actually shuts down some of the … You don’t see as much damage to the intestine. So if you give that CPT-11 prodrug to the mice, if you don’t give any of these other inhibitors for beta glucuronidase, then you see all these side effects. If you give that inhibitor, suddenly you don’t see them anymore.

Sarah McConnell: That’s really exciting.

Kimberly Lane: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sarah McConnell: It’s so neat that you have undergraduate students doing this research with you.

Kimberly Lane: We do.

Sarah McConnell: It’s encouraging to think they are fighting cancer in this sophisticated way at such a young age.

Kimberly Lane: We’re training them to move on to take a little piece of this project and just even if they’re just looking at one amino acid in the whole protein, just one little piece of it, couple of atoms out of thousands, hundreds of thousands of atoms. And to really take that little piece and make it a part of their life really and to take that on for a year or two years or even three years of research. And then go on to grad school or med school. We’ve got several students right now that are in graduate school and thinking about eventually starting their own research labs one day. We’ve got several in medical school and pharmacy school right now. So it’s always very rewarding to work with the students and be able to work on a project like this that we know we’re helping people on the bigger scale, but then also helping on the smaller scale of helping some of our students getting their own training. And even if you’re not on CPT-11, even if you don’t have colon cancer, it’s something that affects everybody and the more we know about how cancer works and how we can treat it, even on one particular case, we can use that information all over.

Sarah McConnell: Well Kim Lane, I am so grateful to you for talking with me today on With Good Reason.

Kimberly Lane: Of course, of course, any time.

Sarah McConnell: Kimberly Lane is a professor of biochemistry at Longwood University. Major support for With Good Reason is provided by the law firm of McGuireWood. With Good Reason is produced in Charlottesville by Virginia Humanities. Our production team is Allison Quantz, Elliott Majerczyk and Cass Adair. Jeannie Palin handles listener services. Special thanks this week to Victor Bowen of WHRV in Norfolk and Jon Benfield of WVRU, Radford. For the podcast, go to withgoodreasonradio.org. I’m Sarah McConnell, thanks for listening.

 

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