Old drug finds new use in cancer cure

Almost 10 years ago, doctors put a stop to a hopeful cancer remedy because the drug was too risky and failed to produce accurate results.

The drug, triciribine, which had tested well on animals, had to be abandoned because it caused high levels of hyperglycemia in some users. A recent discovery by two H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center researchers has given hope that a modified form of the drug can finally be used to combat cancer. Researchers plan to conduct clinical trials sometime this year.

Jin Cheng, a professor of pathology who co-discovered the revamped drug, known as API-2, and Said Sebti, associate director for Moffitt, said the problem wasn’t with the drug. API-2 targets the cancer-causing protein Akt. But the protein wasn’t heard of when the drug was first used in the early 1980s.

As doctors injected the drug back then, they discovered some patients had hyperactive Akt levels — usually found in 20 to 50 percent of breast, ovarian and melanoma cancer victims — and others didn’t.

Sebti and Cheng contend that those who didn’t respond to the drug did not have hyperactive Akt. In addition, some patients developed hyperglycemia as a result.

“No one knew about (Akt),” Sebti said. “(Researchers) tried it out because they found that it had some anti-cancer activity in animals. But it was erratic, in that some patients responded and some didn’t, and (doctors) didn’t know why.”

In 2000, Sebti and Cheng confirmed that hyperactive Akt tumors cause some forms of cancer. Probing for a drug inhibitor, the two searched through 2,000 compounds that the National Cancer Institute provided.

With a tailored chemotherapy drug at hand, Cheng said ousting Akt isn’t the ideal goal. “Akt is actually good for your metabolism, but high levels of Akt causes cancer,” he said.

Cancer patients with hyperactive Akt will be invited for clinical testing at Moffitt in about six months, Sebti said.

Even though Sebti and Cheng invented API-2, USF has ownership of the drug. USF submitted the drug for licensing to VioQuest Pharmaceuticals, Inc. of New Jersey.

Should the drug reach the mainstream market, Sebti said VioQuest will pay USF an undisclosed amount of money.

“If half of the patients with hyperactive Akt benefit from the new medicine, it would be a very positive trial,” Sebti said, “And in the cancer world, that will be really good.”