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Scientists dive into innovative cancer research

Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 01:02

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 D’Agostino 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 Gehrig’s 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.

“It’s nice to do research you can really get inspired by,” Bennett said. “I think that (our research) is a change in the way we’ve been dealing with cancer as an issue. There’s kind of a revolution in how people are viewing how to treat cancer, and I think there’s a lot of hope for the future in this kind of research.”

The research stems from the lab’s 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 lab’s 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 system’s oxygen toxicity, which can cause divers to have a seizure while underwater.

These seizures, D’Agostino said, are a common problem experienced by Navy Seal


“The navy is interested in why these seizures occur, and they’re interested in ways to predict an oncoming seizure, because they happen without warning,” D’Agostino said. “Having a seizure underwater can be quickly fatal, so they want to identify a biomarker that can identify … if it’s 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 D’Agostino 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,” D’Agostino said.

The lab’s 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.

D’Agostino explained that when a tumor grows, it grows rapidly and the inside of the tumor becomes low in oxygen. It’s 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.

D’Agostino 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.

Bennett’s work includes using an animal model that had metastatic cancer, what D’Agnostino 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.

D’Agostino said the standard of care for today’s cancer patients has failed, especially for more aggressive cancers such as metastatic cancer. Primarily pharmaceutical companies drive the cancer research industry, and D’Agostino 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 Gehrig’s disease. Ari said the team began research on ALS last October, and that there isn’t much data available so it’s 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.

D’Agostino said more cancer researchers are beginning to notice this about the team’s 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 we’re doing is very strong and it’s growing,” D’Agostino said. “It’s not like pseudoscience, it’s something that we can validate and produce scientific theory behind while we observe the effects that we’re observing …I t’s also inspiring that it puts treatment to some degree in the patient’s hands themselves I think a lot of patients feel very hopeless about their treatment and feel there isn’t 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.”

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