There is no cure for glioblastoma, the fatal brain cancer that claimed the lives of Sen. John McCain last year and Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2009.
Even with treatment, the median survival is 12 to 18 months. For most, a diagnosis is considered a death sentence.
But in Oklahoma, Mike Schuster continues to live with the disease. In November, he passed the three-year anniversary of his diagnosis with the deadly cancer, meaning he’s already more than doubled the life expectancy for patients with glioblastoma.
Doctors can’t say for certain why Schuster has lived where others have succumbed to the disease. His prospects looked especially grim when he had a recurrence following surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. But things changed when he began treatment with an experimental drug developed by scientists at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
Known as OKN-007, the experimental medication was discovered by OMRF scientists Drs. Rheal Towner and Robert Floyd. In pre-clinical glioblastoma experiments, the compound dramatically decreased cell proliferation (spread) and angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels), and it turned on the process of removing damaged cells so they can’t become cancerous.
“Those are the three major factors needed in a cancer drug,” Towner says. “This compound seemed to do all of them.”
In October, Oblato, Inc., a New Jersey subsidiary of Korean biotechnology company GTreeBNT, acquired the rights to OKN-007 from OMRF. It will move ahead with further trials of the drug in glioblastoma.
“When we looked for a corporate partner, we needed someone with experience developing drugs for orphan indications,” says OMRF Vice President of Technology Ventures Manu Nair, who orchestrated the agreement.
“GTree’s strong track record in the orphan disease space made it well positioned to help guide the drug through trials and, we hope, into hospitals and clinics, where it can reach patients who currently face a bleak treatment landscape.”
Nair chooses to focus on strategy and mission when pairing OMRF technologies with industry teams.
Funding is important, he says, but it’s not the alpha and omega. “Without full alignment with mission – both that of the institution and the candidate technology – dollars are just dollars. And money alone won’t deliver better patient outcomes.”
For glioblastoma patients and the doctors who treat them, outcomes are all that matter. “If you leave even a single cancer cell in the brain, glioblastoma can regrow,” says Dr. James Battiste, the neuro-oncologist who oversees Schuster’s care at Stephenson Cancer Center at the University of Oklahoma. “That’s one of the many reasons we desperately need new treatments.”
Schuster continues to receive weekly infusions of OKN-007. Since beginning treatment with the drug, he’s added a healthy 15 pounds to his frame. “I’ve been able to get back to the gym and am doing some yard work. I feel really good.” Best of all, he says, “My MRIs are looking good.”
Of course, neither he nor his doctors can know for sure if the drug is responsible for keeping his cancer at bay. But Schuster feels fortunate that he found OKN-007. “Let’s just say I’ve been very blessed. It’s pretty cool how this stuff is working.”