Scientists dive into innovative cancer research

Developing studies from a USF research team may suggest that the same technologies used to train deep-sea divers could lead to breakthroughs in cancer research.

The Hyperbaric Biomedical Research Laboratory, part of the department of molecular pharmacology and physiology at USF, spearheaded by Drs. Dominic DAgostino and Csilla Ari with three Ph.D. students, started researching why divers have seizures during diving expeditions.

The team has since been able to apply their findings to other health problems, such as cancer and ALS research, otherwise known as Lou Gehrigs disease.

One of the Ph.D. students, Angela Bennett, said the research she and her colleagues are working on is potentially revolutionary, and that the scientific community is beginning the change their outlook on ways to treat cancer.

Its nice to do research you can really get inspired by, Bennett said. I think that (our research) is a change in the way weve been dealing with cancer as an issue. Theres kind of a revolution in how people are viewing how to treat cancer, and I think theres a lot of hope for the future in this kind of research.

The research stems from the labs unique possession of a hyperbaric chamber, which is used to acclimate divers to deep-sea conditions, where oxygen has trouble effectively getting to the brain.

Funding for the labs experiments comes primarily from the Office of Navy Research (ONR). The ONR was interested in the lab for various reasons. One of these reasons is to develop and test a mitigation strategy against the central nervous systems oxygen toxicity, which can cause divers to have a seizure while underwater.

These seizures, DAgostino said, are a common problem experienced by Navy Seal

The navy is interested in why these seizures occur, and theyre interested in ways to predict an oncoming seizure, because they happen without warning, DAgostino said. Having a seizure underwater can be quickly fatal, so they want to identify a biomarker that can identify if its going to happen.

The lab has developed a synthetic drug-like food made up of ketone esters, which divers and cancer patients can take as part of what DAgostino refers to as metabolic therapy. The benefit of using this type of food to prevent seizures rather than a typical drug, he said, is that ketone esters are a source of calories and can provide a source of energy for the brain and muscles of the person that consumes the food, reducing the likelihood of an oxygen-induced seizure.

It can potentially enhance warfighter performance, cognitive performance and physical performance, DAgostino said.

The labs hyperbaric chamber allows researchers to simulate any diving scenario that divers may face while underwater. The information gained by the team while using the chamber has also been applied to tests on cancer cells.

DAgostino explained that when a tumor grows, it grows rapidly and the inside of the tumor becomes low in oxygen. Its the signal of the low oxygen, he said, that actually causes cells to secrete substances that make the tumor grow faster.

If the team is able to provide oxygen to the tumor, they can kill it and prevent further growth. In the process of looking at brain cells, the team looked at cancer cells as well, and found that when they expose cancer cells to high levels of oxygen, little bumps appear, which occurs when the cells are preparing to die.

DAgostino said he was impressed by the discovery and at first thought someone else much have made the discovery in the past.

This discovery led to the team taking on more projects in their research.

Bennetts work includes using an animal model that had metastatic cancer, what DAgnostino calls the worst case scenario cancer. A demonstration of this model shows that the team could dramatically shrink the tumor and extend survival in the animal model.

DAgostino said the standard of care for todays cancer patients has failed, especially for more aggressive cancers such as metastatic cancer. Primarily pharmaceutical companies drive the cancer research industry, and DAgostino said there is little incentive for the companies to study ketone supplements in the way that the team does.

The team is also using its research to apply the metabolic therapy to provide therapeutic relief with those who are receiving treatments for ALS, or Lou Gehrigs disease. Ari said the team began research on ALS last October, and that there isnt much data available so its too soon to come to a specific conclusion about the performance of the therapy.

The first phase of the ALS research conducted tested if the treatment option is comfortable for the animals. Ari said the test resulted in the animals eating well. The team has also been testing motor performance, and is currently working to increase the lifespan of the animals that are being given the therapy.

The team is beginning work on the second phase of the ALS research, which is projected to be complete in April.

Ari said will include a greater amount of test subjects to gather more data.

DAgostino said more cancer researchers are beginning to notice this about the teams research. He said the metabolic therapy that his team has developed might be an inexpensive, non-toxic alternative that pushes the patient to be more conscious of their health.

The scientific rationale of what were doing is very strong and its growing, DAgostino said. Its not like pseudoscience, its something that we can validate and produce scientific theory behind while we observe the effects that were observing I ts also inspiring that it puts treatment to some degree in the patients hands themselves I think a lot of patients feel very hopeless about their treatment and feel there isnt a whole lot they can personally do, and parts of our (metabolic) therapy, such as our diet therapy, can really empower them, along side doing whatever their doctor recommends.

Bennett said the goal is to get as much evidence and data of the teams work out into the scientific community as possible, and hopes that someday clinical trials will begin on the teams findings so that metabolic therapy can begin to be given to patients.

I think that the most important thing right now is to garner the interest of the rest of the scientific community, and I think thats happening, Bennett said.