New drug might prove to be a breakthrough in the fight against cancer

Last week the US company Gilead Sciences announced that - in cooperation with the Prague Institute for Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry - it had developed a new drug that might prove to be a breakthrough in the fight against cancer. The drug - labeled GS9219 - has shown fantastic results in the first phase of testing on animals. We called the head of the Czech research team professor Zdenek Havlas to find out more about this revolutionary discovery.

"The reason why the new drug is so effective is that the compound - the modification of our compound - is targeted specifically towards cancer cells. As a result it can damage (eliminate) tumors in a very short time with a single doze. Specifically, in pre-clinical studies, one injection of the drug removed stomach and throat tumors in dogs in just six days."

It sounds absolutely fantastic. I hear that it is now being tested on human patients in the United States. What kind of cancer does it treat effectively - or what kind do you expect it to treat effectively?

"We know that the compound is active against so called non-Hodgkin lymphomas which covers a relatively broad range of cancers and also against cancer of the blood because it is accumulated in the lymphatic cells. We don't know whether it will be effective against other kinds of cancer - that is now being researched."

What kind of hurdles could you still come up against?

"Well, now clinical trials have started in American hospitals supervised by the Gilead company. The trial tests will take a relatively long time and nobody can guarantee that what was observed in the pre-clinical studies will be valid when tested on people. It could be toxic or the human body could react slightly differently to the drug. That sort of thing can never be ruled out. But because it was tested on big animals with a body relatively similar to the body of human beings we believe that the drug will pass through all three stages of clinical trials successfully and be approved as an effective cancer drug for people."

So this could be a major breakthrough?

"This is a major breakthrough for cancers against which it is active. There is still something that we do not understand - why this compound targets specifically cancer cells. That is a big challenge for us because once we understand why it acts in this way we will understand the basic mechanism of treatment of cancer and that would be a real breakthrough."

When you say that you don't understand why it targets cancer cells specifically - does that mean it was a stroke of luck?

"That's typical of the world of science. You need a lot of luck in making new discoveries."

And if all goes well, when can we expect to see this new drug on the market?

"Well, the FDA approval procedures are relatively long, but my guess is that in about six years- maybe a little bit longer - it will get approved and then it could be used in hospitals around the world."