The Henrietta Lacks Foundation awards first assistance grants to HeLa descendants

Yesterday, author Rebecca Skloot made the following announcement at her website:

Today, the Henrietta Lacks Foundation awarded its first ever grants thanks to donations from Rebecca Skloot, and many readers. The first awards cover full tuition and books for five descendants of Henrietta Lacks starting fall semester 2010, as well as an emergency grant for one of Henrietta Lacks’s sons. More information about the inaugural Henrietta Lacks Foundation grants coming soon. For more information on the foundation, or to make a donation, click here.

As some readers know, I have been a big fan of Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I have been the beneficiary of the cervical carcinoma cell line established in 1951 from the Ms. Lacks’s tumor.

When Rebecca announced last year that she was to establish a foundation to funnel profits and donations to assist the Lacks family, one of her primary goals when embarking on this project more than ten years ago, she also asked me to serve on the board of the Foundation.

I’ll have more to say about this process when a formal press release is made. But for the time being, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to do my part to honor the memory of Henrietta Lacks and assist her descendants.

Support for Duke breast cancer colleagues post-Potti

I came home yesterday and looked at the mail with a shudder: the Summer 2010 issue of the biannual Duke Medicine DukeMed magazine greeted me with a cover on personal genomics in breast cancer.

Oh no.

As a twice-yearly publication, it was probably published weeks ago and was sitting in a warehouse ready for mailing. All this while when The Cancer Letter broke the story about credentials issues surrounding Dr. Anil Potti and raised awareness of widespread criticism in the field surrounding work from him and Dr. Joe Nevins on genomic signatures and drug sensitivity of patient tumors (our post with links to reports here).

Indeed, Potti and Nevins were still quoted therein (article text here, full issue 4 MB PDF here):

“Genomics will revolutionize cancer therapy,” says cancer researcher Anil Potti, MD. “It allows us to identify a fingerprint that’s unique to every individual patient’s tumor. If you can match that fingerprint with the drug that’s most likely to work for that patient, you can make cancer treatment more effective and less toxic. It brings us closer to a cure.”

Potti and Joseph Nevins, PhD, of the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy, have led the effort to look at gene expression profiles from large groups of tumor samples and compare those profiles with treatment outcomes, searching for patterns (or genomic signatures) that indicate the “personality types” of tumors — those that are likely to metastasize or not; those with good prognosis and poor prognosis; a tumor that is resistant to a drug or one that is sensitive to a drug.

But the vast majority of the article featured several other Duke oncology physician-scientists with quotes and profile photographs on other efforts there to personalize breast cancer treatment. Several of these folks are colleagues who I respect deeply and whose scientific ethics and clinical dedication are beyond question – all are tremendous physicians who’ve relieved the suffering of thousands of women with breast cancer (perhaps a couple tens of thousands – and a couple of hundred men with breast cancer as well.)  One I recognize as a heme/onc fellow I taught in an AACR laboratory workshop over 10 years ago.

Just as many of my esteemed colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry are tarred with sweeping generalizations following high-profile but individual cases of unforgivable impropriety, I fear that some of my valued Duke colleagues may be similarly viewed by the broad public.

I recognize that the pending internal and external investigation of the Potti case may reveal some collusion of institutional leadership and culture.

However, I wish to register my personal and professional support for my other Duke colleagues quoted in this issue of DukeMed.

If my mother had a recurrence of her breast cancer or could gain access to an experimental treatment in a clinical trial outside of those based on Potti’s science, I would still send her there in a heartbeat.

Disclosure: I was co-author with one of the named physician-scientists on a 2004 Journal of Clinical Oncology case report of a breast cancer patient who experienced a delayed-hypersensitivity reaction during chemotherapy following injection of a mistletoe extract by a naturopath. Another co-author was my spouse, a former Duke physician-scientist. Since 2001, I’ve also held an adjunct faculty appointment at Duke and am a member of their NCI comprehensive cancer center. I draw no salary or other compensation from these appointments.

The Cancer Letter reveals Rhodes Scholar falsification by Duke cancer researcher

This is not good. Not good at all.
On Friday, Paul Goldberg of The Cancer Letter reported on an investigation into Duke cancer researcher, Anil Potti, MD, and claims made that he was a Rhodes Scholar – in Australia. The misrepresentation was made on grant applications to NIH and the American Cancer Society.
The Cancer Letter, a $375/year go-to newsletter on cancer research, funding, and drug development, has made this issue free at this PDF link.
News & Observer higher education reporter, Eric Ferreri, has a nice overview of the situation. Potti has been placed on administrative leave by Duke and the American Cancer Society has suspended payments on his grant and initiated their own investigation.
This news follows on questions regarding Potti’s highly-promoted research conducted in the lab of Joe Nevins at Duke. From The Cancer Letter PDF on page 6:

The Nevins and Potti team emerged as pioneers of personalized medicine in 2006, when Nature Medicine published their paper claiming that microarray analysis of patient tumors could be used to predict response to chemotherapy.
However, two biostatisticians at the MD Anderson Cancer Center attempted to verify this work when oncologists asked whether microarray analysis could be used in the clinic. Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes, the statisticians, found a series of errors, including mislabeling and an “off-by-one” error, where gene probe identifiers were mismatched with the names of genes.
Baggerly and Coombes said they devoted about 1,500 hours to checking Potti’s and Nevins’s work. These efforts–dubbed “forensic bioinformatics”–resulted in a paper in the November 2009, issue of the Annals of Applied Statistics.

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Catherine Clabby covers Frank Stasio (WUNC-FM’s The State of Things) for Durham Magazine

Homer alert.
The title pretty much covers three of some of my favorite things about living in Durham, NC. From the Pharmboy mailbox and Durham Magazine website:

Catherine Clabby – former reporter extraordinaire for The News & Observer, current editor extraordinaire for American Scientist magazine and a long-time Durhamite extraordinaire – spent hours finding out why The State of Things host Frank Stasio has fallen head-over-heels for Durham. Sometimes it takes an outsider to help us all appreciate how good we have it. Frank’s doing that in a big way, both through his work at NPR and in his day-to-day life. Good on you, Frank and Catherine.

stasio2.jpgThe focus of the article in the magazine extraordinaire, Durham Magazine, is Frank Stasio, host and interviewer extraordinaire of his noontime show, The State of Things, on our NPR affiliate, WUNC-FM, and the statewide North Carolina Public Radio network. Like many of us, Frank is a transplant (from DC in the case of his family) but has seized upon his new home with all the gusto of a Chamber of Commerce booster. I have learned more from Frank about music, writers, community, health, recycling, and hog farms than from any other venue in the state. The description of his show is:

The State of Things is a live program hosted by Frank Stasio devoted to bringing the issues, personalities, and places of North Carolina to our listeners. We present the Tar Heel experience through sound, story, discussion, commentary and listener participation through calls.

I should also mention Frank’s unsung hero, producer Katy Barron, with whom I had the pleasure of working during last year’s U2 academic conference and a recent book author tour. Garnering a photo from a studio glass reflection in the article, Katy is the ethereal presence of The State of Things, scheduling talent, listening to their music or reading their books in advance, and helping Frank stay on top of everything. Katy is the head of the production staff to which Frank deflects any compliment.
They run a civilized operation from one of the most comfortable radio stations I’ve ever sat in, offering glasses of hot tea to guests from their central location in the American Tobacco Campus, Durham’s example of warehouse revitalization.

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What does it take to knock off K2 Spice readership?

Just the other day, I wrote about how DrugMonkey and I have experienced unprecedented and sustained blog traffic for posts we wrote in February on K2 Spice, one of a couple of marijuana-like “incense” products still sold legally in the United States.
Every morning, I dial up my SiteMeter blog statistics and take a look at what posts readers first land upon when coming to visit the humble world headquarters of Terra Sigillata.
Last week, 2,700 to 2,800 of the 4,000 most recent hits were landing on our February K2 Spice post. (You will also note below the sad state of my readership in that posts on Stiff Nights erectile dysfunction supplement and Horny Goat Weed products are the next most popular direct hits.)
Finally, one post has knocked it out of the top spot after nearly four months:
Monday’s post about the memorial unveiling of the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks this past weekend.
Henrietta Lacks knocks off K2 Spice.jpg
I have been completely overwhelmed by the interest in this story. This widespread attention would not be possible without the Facebook and blog referrals by author Rebecca Skloot, The New York Times Science page, and the enthusiastic Twitter referrals by other writers who I respect greatly such as David Dobbs, Sara Goforth, Mike Rosenwald, T. DeLene Beeland, Ted Winstead, scribbler50, Eric Ferreri, – as well as the dozens of you sci/med bloggers and folks from other walks of life who found this post worthy of recommending to your friends.
Please accept my apologies if you were not mentioned by name – I don’t have Bora Zivkovic’s flair for aggregating and linking to every referral but you have my gratitude for further popularizing the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family.
And for those of you so inclined, here are images of the memorial program that weren’t included in the last post:

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Marking the magnificent memory of Henrietta Lacks


Henrietta Lacks gravestone 05.30.10 copyright David J Kroll
In addition to my own photos herein, Tom McLaughlin posted a nice slide show of the day at his South Boston News & Record.

Despite two trees that snapped and fell in my driveway within six feet of my car in an impressive thunderstorm Friday evening, I drove on Saturday morning to Clover, Virginia, for the dedication of a gravestone that finally marks the final resting place of Henrietta Lacks, a concrete honor, if you will, to recognize the source of one of the most valuable medical tools of the 20th century and today.

For those who are not regular readers, Henrietta Lacks was a rural tobacco farmer, mother, wife, daughter, sister, and friend from southern Virginia who developed an unusually aggressive case of cervical cancer while living in Baltimore in 1951. While being treated at Johns Hopkins University, surgeons excised pieces of her tumor in an ongoing effort by the laboratory of Dr. George Gey to establish a continuously growing human tumor cell line in culture, a feat that had only been previously accomplished with mouse cells.

Ms. Lacks’s cells are today known by the name, HeLa (hee-luh), and have been used from the 1950s in testing the effectiveness of the original Salk polio vaccine up through today providing the basis for the new cervical cancer vaccines. I would not be overstating the case to say that most biomedical scientists have at one time or another worked with HeLa cells.

However, the identity of Henrietta Lacks as the unknowing donor of the cells that gave rise to so many medical discoveries – a poor Black woman, mind you – as well as the story of her family and their travails at the hand of the medical establishment had largely gone untold until the 1980s, even among scientists themselves.

But with the help of the family – especially Henrietta’s late daughter, Deborah – scientists, historians, and her own tenacious investigative skills, journalist and author Rebecca Skloot spent the last ten years researching and gorgeously crafting a book on the HeLa story that has become this year’s best-selling non-fiction gem, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. If you have not yet read the book, you are missing out on what Dwight Garner of The New York Times called, “one of the most graceful and moving nonfiction books I’ve read in a very long time.”

A black woman, a white boy, and a PhD
My own interest in the story extends beyond my general fascination with the history of science and medicine. It is far more personal.

As I wrote in November on the 20th anniversary of my PhD dissertation defense, HeLa cells were the primary experimental system for my study of the anticancer drug target, DNA topoisomerase IIα. Moreover, HeLa cells were also the source of genomic DNA that I needed to understand the enzyme’s regulation when I started my own laboratory in 1992. They ended up providing the topic of the first published paper from my independent group: me, my first PhD student, and first technician.

So when I learned that from the South Boston (VA) News & Record that the Lacks family had planned a memorial dedication service for Ms. Lacks’s headstone, I just had to attend.

The headstone was provided by a Morehouse School of Medicine donation from Dr. Roland Pattillo and his wife, Pat. Dr. Pattillo is an ob/gyn physician-scientist at the Morehouse School of Medicine who has largely been the medical guardian of the Lacks family and who provided the entré to Ms. Skloot after she convinced him of her sincerity in telling the story of the family and their matriarch.

Dr. Pattillo is also himself a notable scientist of historic stature and a living connection to Dr. George Gey. Among his own four decades of accomplishments, Dr. Pattillo worked at Hopkins with Gey in the sixties on the hormonal aspects of neuroendocrine tumors and, as detailed in a 1968 Science paper, established the BeWo choriocarcinoma cell line, the first immortalized line to produce human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG). hCG is the hormone produced by the placenta that is detected in clinical and home pregnancy tests.
Kroll Pattillo 05.29.10 002 copyright David J Kroll

To the right is Dr. Pattillo at the gravesite with an unnamed science blogger showing off his 20-year-old dissertation. To the right are two Lacks family members sharing addresses on top of Skloot’s book. You’ll note that the gravestone is also in the shape of a book, representing the many stories that have come from the legacy of Henrietta Lacks.

The service began at St. Matthew Baptist Church in Clover, the church where Henrietta had been a member since 1932. My intention had been just to drive up and quietly pay my respects, maybe even get a photo of my dissertation at Henrietta’s gravesite. Such intentions were derailed by one of the nice usherette ambassadors at St Matthew who asked if I was a dignitary (no). She then insisted that I sit with the press and go have a word with the pastor, Reverend Alfred Chandler.

Reverend Chandler then asked that I speak to the standing room-only congregation that included dozens of Lacks family members about how my personal and professional life had been touched by the woman from Clover. Time was set aside for friends and family to share such brief reflections.

Just as an aside: I’ve now lived in the South for a third of my life. For the last ten years I’ve lived in a town with an equal 45% African-American and White population and am a professor at a historically-Black university, North Carolina Central University. It never ceases to amaze me how warmly welcoming the Black community has been to me, everywhere from Virginia to Florida, and in a manner that belies the converse treatment of the community for centuries. In fact, if I could join a Black congregation, I’d probably still be going church.

I was beaming when I learned that the first scripture reading was the famous Ecclesiastes passage (3:1-8) upon which Pete Seeger wrote Turn! Turn! Turn! (The song was made popular by The Byrds in 1965 and discussed on this blog, with a Byrds reunion performance, here.). In the context of the other speakers, it was clear that this day was one to heal, build up, laugh, dance, and, most certainly, a time to embrace – I haven’t been hugged so much since my last visit with my large family from New Jersey.

Kimberley Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J KrollOpening words on behalf of the Lacks family were offered by Kimberley Lacks, daughter of Sonny Lacks, granddaughter of Henrietta Lacks.

Kimberley stressed a major point that Skloot’s book also did so extraordinarily well: for us to remember that her grandmother was a real woman who worked in the fields, cooked, danced, and wanted the world for her children like any other parent.

Kimberley then expressed the families gratitude for those who did just that, first and foremost thanking Rebecca Skloot for her ten-year journey with the family and scientists worldwide to bring the Henrietta Lacks story to the attention of all people, not just us in science and medicine.

Then, Kimberley said something I want all writers to know:

“Thanks to the media for bringing the story of Henrietta Lacks to the world.”

I joked with the writers and TV folks there as to when the last time was that they were expressly thanked for their work. But remember this, my journalism friends: you do make a difference. Because of this essential role you play in society, we just have to figure how to make the profession more financially viable for as many of you as possible in the new media landscape.

I had the distinct pleasure of being seated next to Attorney William Bryant Claiborne and his wife. Attorney Claiborne is a proud graduate of Virginia State University, a superb HBCU in Petersburg, and then earned a law degree at the University of Virginia. His colleagues thought he was out of his mind to come back to his rural home to practice but he reminded me that his home folk need legal services just as badly as those in Richmond and DC. Mr. Claiborne certainly walks that talk – also serving on the Halifax County Board of Supervisors. In this capacity, he presented the Lacks family (below) with a resolution honoring Henrietta Lacks, saying “we are so proud she lies in our county.”

Claiborne Halifax Co resolution 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll

A rare experience for a scientist
While anxiously reflecting on the comments I was about to give, I recalled the fact that I felt embarrassed that my dissertation included nothing more about HeLa cells than the paragraph excerpted in this post, and certainly nothing about the woman from whom the cells were derived. Twenty years later, this is an even more glaring omission. So, I used the opportunity to thank the family for the gift of their matriarch. While I couldn’t change the past treatment of the family, I can play a part in moving forward and was therefore honored to be asked by Rebecca Skloot to serve with Dr. Pattillo on the board of The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to bring scholarship support to today’s young descendants. (Rebecca is donating a portion of book proceeds to the Foundation.)

And I didn’t even think about this until I was standing before the congregation – I told the family that I would be honored for them to sign my dissertation because this PhD work was as much theirs as mine.

I also had a few other things to say regarding the impact of HeLa cells on me personally and professionally and on other scientists and physicians around the world and how literally world-famous Henrietta Lacks is now. This gift of their matriarch, through her own suffering, has facilitated our efforts to relieve the suffering of literally millions of other people. The use of HeLa cells (and other cell lines overtaken by HeLa cells) led to the development of some drugs that treated my own mother who was stricken with a lymph node-positive breast cancer when I was a junior in college, stimulating me to become a cancer researcher and allowing her to now be a 26-year breast cancer survivor.

I was also sure to address the young people in the audience, family and otherwise, to encourage them in science and medicine and offered our them an open invitation to visit with us in our laboratories and classrooms in the Research Triangle area.

These words got some applause and a few Amens and “Praise Jesus!” – affirmations and feedback that we rarely get in the context of university auditoriums and seminar programs. Knowing more about the Black church since moving to the South makes these affirmations even more meaningful.

I do not yet have the writing skills to adequately express how moving this experience was for me to have the opportunity to face the family and express my gratitude that the life I have today – the wife, daughter, house, guitars – stems from a story of injustice across the decades. Because of today’s clinical guidelines for anonymizing human tissue specimens, we most often have no idea as to who exactly provided the biological research tools we use in the laboratory. But to be hugged by Sonny Lacks and literally and philosophically embraced by so many of the family is an experience I will never forget.

And now that several dozen members of the Lacks family have autographed and inscribed my dissertation, it somehow seems more complete.
Veronica Spencer inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll
Jackson inscription 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll

Many of the family also put in their telephone numbers, quite ironic knowing how difficult it was for Rebecca to even get family members to return her phone calls for the first couple of years of her writing.

The guest speakers that followed were uniformly outstanding beginning with Rev. Kevin Chandler, president of the Halifax NAACP chapter. Rev. Ronnie Womack, mediator of the Banister Missionary Baptist Association, gave us some of the most motivating old-time preaching, stressing that the day was one for unification – implying, to me at least, that we were there to recognize that the gift of a Black woman has impacted the lives of all racial and ethnic groups – and “that when CNN rolls across the bottom of the screen that a cure for cancer has been found,” that Henrietta Lacks will be part of that story.

The highlight for many of us was when Dr. Roland Pattillo took the pulpit to humbly note his role in the day and the generosity of he and his wife in providing the gravestone for Henrietta Lacks together with the Morehouse School of Medicine. In noting that over 60,000 peer-reviewed publications have made use of HeLa cells, Pattillo told us that even today, another such paper is published at a rate of one every two hours. Dr. Pattillo is deserving of his own blog post and I look forward to telling more of his story.

At the other end of the spectrum was the next speaker, a remarkable young man, freshman congressman Rep. Tom Perriello (I can say that because he’s about a decade my junior). An undergrad and law graduate of Yale University, this native of Virginia’s 5th district reflected on his work in West Africa where polio continues to afflict millions despite the millions saved in Western nations thanks to the role HeLa cells played early in vaccine development. Perriello excerpted a resolution he read into the Congressional Record last Friday honoring Henrietta Lacks (“Honoring Henrietta Pleasant-Lacks” full text and PDF).

As a side note, I drove past many advertisements for his Republican opponent, Robert Hurt, that read, “HURT U.S. Congress.”

My immediate thoughts were, no thank you – you’ve hurt it enough already.

Perriello is an energetic politician who causes Republicans to froth because of his dedication to the military, international relations, workforce development, and establishment of faith-based aid groups while also putting forth such heresy and tyranny as affordable health care and asking his campaign workers to also “tithe” hours on community service projects unrelated to the election. His district runs from the North Carolina border to north of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, where his support is quite strong. I took it as a compliment that Rep. Perriello stopped me afterward to say I’d make a good politician – if it meant being like him, I would.

Reverend Alfred Chandler then closed with words that I think we can all do well to remember – that when we see someone in our community and feel an urge to pass judgment, bear in mind that we have no idea as to that person’s story.

Gravestone dedication
We were then off to the Lacks family cemetery on the property of the old home-house down Lacks Town Road, an absolutely beautiful stretch of rolling farmland. The photo below was taken looking south from the intersection of Mt. Laurel and Lacks Town Rd.
Mt Laurel and Lacks Town Rd 05.29.10 copyright David J Kroll
Elsie Lacks 05.29.10 copyright David J KrollAbout 100 people remained from the church service to dedicate the Henrietta Lacks gravestone just to the left of that of her mother, Eliza Pleasant. Another gravestone also being dedicated was that for Elsie Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter who died at age 15 at the Crownsville State Hospital, known then as The Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland. The story of Elsie and the visit there by Rebecca and Deborah Lacks has been cited by many as one of the most emotional parts of Skloot’s book.

Sonny and NPR Forester 05.29.10 copyright David J KrollWith all of the press attention, Sonny Lacks made it a point to introduce to all Mr. NPR “Butch” Forester, the groundskeeper who maintains the previously overgrown Lacks family cemetery in its now peaceful and reverent state.

I also had the chance to walk over to the home-house where Henrietta, her husband David, and children lived. It’s tougher to see now than in the winter due to the trees and undergrowth but you can get a better glimpse of it from the photos then at Rebecca Skloot’s website.

And before heading back on the road, the church and family had a nice repast dinner with fried chicken, green beans, potato salad, macaroni salad, meatballs, rice, and – nom! – chocolate cake.

Put simply, this was the single most moving day in my life as a scientist.


A roundup of press cover of the Henrietta Lacks headstone memorial dedication:

Lauren Compton and her videographer from WSET-TV in Lynchburg wrote this article and filed a segment from the station having only an hour to get back to the studio, thereby missing the repast. Beyond being a superb reporter, Ms. Compton did not have to refer to the songsheet to sing the words to the hymns.

I had a lovely time chatting with Denise Watson Batts of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot who wrote “After 60 years of anonymity, Henrietta Lacks has a headstone.” Denise also had an excellent interview earlier this month in Baltimore with Sonny Lacks, eldest brother, Lawrence, and cousin Sadie Grinnan.

A superb writer, editor, and a fine gentleman, Tom McLaughlin, wrote this nicely detailed article for his South Boston News & Record. Although the press took numerous photographs at the services, only Tom put up a slideshow of 49 photos within that story. Tom and his mother, Sylvia O. McLaughlin, editor of the News & Record, are extremely proud of their newspaper and readers know that I am a huge fan of local news. The level of detail that local writers and publishers puts into such stories (or should) reminds us of the importance of sustained local reporting. I’m grateful to Tom and his Mom for sending me home with a few issues of their paper that covered Skloot’s book and the Lacks family stories. Tom’s own review of the book speaks from the viewpoint of a Southside Virginia native.

Tim Saunders from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, birthplace of Henrietta Lacks filed this article and video, “Halifax County community pays tribute to world famous native,” today.

A brief note appeared on June 1 on the website of Essence magazine.

Many thanks also go to Melissa Bell from The Washington Post and graduate of Northwestern University School of Journalism who patiently listened to my stories and whose work I look forward to reading.

I also want to publicly thank my lovely wife, PharmGirl, MD, and the illustrious PharmKid for understanding how much being away for this event meant to me. As always, I was on science time and a quick “couple of hours” trip took all of Saturday, a holiday weekend day we really needed to spend together after I’ve been out of town and away for other university events.

Dichloroacetate not yet an effective treatment for aggressive brain cancer

Dichloroacetate or DCA is a small molecule that has been in the press over the last four years due to its potential to inhibit aerobic glycolysis in cancer cells. The cells from each of us usually produce energy in the form of ATP from a variety of nutrient sources plus oxygen using a very efficient process called oxidative phosphorylation.

However, when oxygen is partly depleted, such as in skeletal muscle when exercising strenuously (“going anerobic”), energy is produced from glucose by a far less efficient process called glycolysis. Glycolysis is the most primitive form of cellular metabolism [Note added: This last sentence is not correct; see below for correction from Prof Larry Moran. – APB]

The glycolytic pathway has become of renewed interest in cancer. Why? Because some but not all cancer cells differ from normal cells by using the inefficient production of ATP by glycolysis regardless of the amount of oxygen that’s around. You’ll hear the term “Warburg effect” used to describe this phenomenon because biochemist Otto Warburg published a famous 1956 paper in the journal, Science, suggesting that the origin of cancer lies in the ability of cancer cells to shift metabolism to glycolysis.

In the intervening years, debate has ensued that accelerate glycolysis in cancer cells is just a by-product of the oncogenic process. But we now appreciate that in some cases, the accelerating of glycolysis encourages cancer. For example, the greater level of the enzyme lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) in some cancer cells is now known to be a direct effect of the oncogenic protein, c-Myc, which by itself can cause normal cells to become cancerous.

The unusual nature of some cancer cells to rely on glycolysis even in the presence of oxygen presents an opportunity to possibly target cancer more selectively while minimizing damage to normal cells as occurs with classical chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapy. Indeed, the promise of targeting the Warburg effect in cancer is intoxicating.

At present, there are a few chemicals known to inhibit glycolysis that resemble some of the intermediates in the process but require extremely high concentrations. One is called 3-bromopyruvate – as I wrote here in 2007, this chemical inhibits both glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation so it would have to be injected directly into the artery that feeds the cancerous tumor. The other chemical is dichloroacetate (DCA).

DCA has been around for a long time and has been used in people with inherited diseases of mitochondrial metabolism. In 2007, a group at the University of Alberta led by cardiologist Evangelos Michelakis demonstrated that very high doses of DCA can slow the progression of human tumor cells grown in immunocompromised rats. The response to this story was unbelievable with internet marketers popping up to sell the simple chemical and conspiracy theorists saying that because DCA was cheap and not patentable, no drug company would ever develop it, it was being kept a secret, and so. In truth, the work was in very, very early stages.

This didn’t stop hopeful patients from seeking out DCA sellers even though DCA can be contaminated with other related substances that are far more toxic. And in the most egregious case among these DCA purveyors, an Edmonton man who purported to sell DCA online was recently arrested in Phoenix and pleaded guilty to five cases of wire fraud – not because he was selling DCA but rather a white powder comprised of some combination of sucrose, lactose, dextran, and starch.

Yes. Not even the unproven DCA. Fake DCA.

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Cytogeneticist Dr. Janet Rowley receives AACR Lifetime Achievement Award

The 101st Annual Meeting of my primary professional society, the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), convened in Washington, DC, on Saturday and will run through Wednesday, April 21. The theme for this year’s meeting is “Conquering Cancer Through Discovery Research,” and focuses strongly on the translation of discoveries into cancer treatments.
Although the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic dust cloud has delayed many European participants, over 17,000 attendees are expected at the Washington Convention Center where over 6,300 presentations are to be given.
AACR was founded in 1907 by 11 eminent physicians and scientists of their time and while “American” is in the name, AACR is truly an international organization.
Seven years ago, AACR instituted their Lifetime Achievement Award in Cancer Research. This year the award went to one of my heroes of cancer research, Dr. Janet D. Rowley of the University of Chicago. Dr. Rowley is best known for her work in the 1970s on chromosomal abnormalities in human cancer, specifically the translocation that involves the “Philadelphia chromosome” and led to the drug to target protein kinases, imatinib (Gleevec or Glivec).
AACR posted a five-minute interview with Dr. Rowley here and I’ll describe some history afterwards.

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Doug Fieger of The Knack dies at 57 of metastatic lung cancer

Get The Knack.jpgI was an angry 14- or 15-year-old in late 1978 or early 1979 – can’t recall which year, but definitely angry – walking home on a Sunday night after a dishwasher shift at Grandma’s Saucy Apron, a now-defunct Italian restaurant in my hometown where I was working to make money for a Spanish National Honor Society trip to Spain over the upcoming Spring Break.
I turned on 99X (New York City’s WXLO-FM) at 9 pm for a new radio show I enjoyed from KXOA in Sacramento, CA, called The Great American Radio Show with Mike Harrison. It was the near-end of the disco era and this album-oriented rock (AOR) weekly countdown show breathed new life into my burgeoning adolescent music experience with the deeper tracks – not the top 40 hits – from bands like Dire Straits, Van Halen, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
On one particular night, I heard a song called “My Sharona” by an L.A. power pop band called The Knack. A simple but catchy testosterone-raged song of yearning that was deemed sexist then but seems so tame today. And an incredible lead guitar break by Berton Averre that was truncated on the single for pop radio play because it pushed the song length to an untenable four minutes and fifty-four seconds.

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