Glioblastoma is a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer that kills about 60 to 70 percent of kids who get it within two years, even if they’re treated with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
Researchers at Children’s Mercy Hospital are now trying to find out if the antidote to this international killer is sitting right here in the Kansas City area, in a treatment currently used to fight cancer in dogs. Yes, dogs.
It’s the beginning of what Children’s Mercy oncologist Doug Myers hopes will be a long and fruitful partnership between Kansas City’s human health researchers and the vaunted KC Animal Health Corridor that stretches from Kansas State University in the west to University of Missouri in the east.
“If we take advantage of the resources we have in this region and get behind those collaborations, this could be a mecca for advanced, exciting, innovative therapies for cancer and lots of other diseases,” Myers said.
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To make that happen, the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute is trying to play matchmaker with the region’s major research institutions and the estimated 250 life sciences companies in the area.
The institute hosted a series of Collaborate2Cure seminars last fall, bringing together 300 scientists, student-researchers and business owners over 12 weeks. The topic, chosen by Myers, was how to work together to promote immunotherapy treatments for cancer.
The seminars spawned the glioblastoma partnership between Children’s Mercy and Olathe-based Elias Animal Health, a company testing immunotherapy treatments for osteosarcoma in dogs at the veterinary health centers at K-State and MU.
“That is certainly the first one, and probably the most remarkable,” Wayne Carter, the president and CEO of the life sciences institute, said of the partnership.
Kevin Ginn, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Mercy, said he and Elias Animal Health executives are developing protocols for the glioblastoma trials. They plan to apply for a Phase 2 trial with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, using data that already exist on the treatment’s safety and effectiveness in dogs.
“We’re meeting about every two weeks,” Ginn said.
Animal-human health partnerships seem like a natural. Animals suffer a lot of the same diseases as humans and can be treated in similar ways.
Both arenas have something to offer the other. Early-stage human health treatments are usually tested on mice because they’re cheap, but trials on larger mammals like dogs are often more predictive of human results. Animal health trials are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and cost less and move more quickly than FDA-regulated human health trials. But successful human health treatments often bring a larger return on investment.
Gerald Wyckoff, a professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said researchers in the two realms have traditionally worked in separate silos, largely unaware of what the other side is doing.
He’s working with Kansas State’s biotech campus in Olathe to establish an electronic database to share data from both animal and human health trials.
Wyckoff said the Kansas City area has a jump-start on marrying the two because people in the Midwest are more savvy about animal health. He said he was talking to a potential investor on the West Coast about a human health company he’s starting, and the person on the other end of the phone was befuddled when he mentioned using veterinary companies to cash in on the animal testing.
“The person I was speaking to said, ‘Wait, I’m sorry, are you telling me that animals and humans use the same drugs?’ ” Wyckoff said. “Luckily I was on the phone so I could mute the phone before I kind of burst out (laughing). That’s where they are in California, and here that’s not even a conversation I have to engage in because people are intimately aware that that’s something that happens and that the information is useful on both sides.”
Wyckoff will give a presentation on the database project Thursday at the life sciences institute’s second annual Midwest Bioinformatics Conference.
Carter said the institute will start another series of Collaborate2Cure seminars in May, focused on treatments for mitochondrial disorders and is giving out a series of five $50,000 grants, funded by the Hall Family Foundation, for human-animal health collaborations.
Which brings up what Wyckoff calls a “next-level question”: When the collaborations start to bear fruit, how do the people involved split up the money?
“First we have to have an understanding of what we could be doing with the information,” Wyckoff said, “and then we could argue about who gets to profit from it.”