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UTSA Lab Home To New Approach To Fighting Cancer

Some San Antonio researchers are developing a new cancer treatment that may be less debilitating than chemo and other therapies. It could also be cheaper.

57-year-old Teresa Farris is fighting a particularly aggressive malignancy called triple negative breast cancer. It’s difficult to treat and it often comes back.

"I’m just continuing to fight on," Farris said. "Whatever it takes."

She’s being treated at San Antonio’s Cancer Therapy and Research Center, Part of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Dr. Andrew Brenner is a breast and brain cancer specialist there. He says current therapies are good. However, many have limitations.

"One of the biggest problems we have is resistance," Brenner explained." Unfortunately, they don’t always work. So we need new agents."

One of those new agents may come from a lab at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Starting with cancer cells in a petri dish, physiologist Dr. Matthew Gdovin and his students took a good idea and set out to prove it could work. First, they bathed cancer cells with a lab-made chemical compound called nitrobenzaldehyde (NBA). Then, they shined an ultraviolet light on the cells. That combination makes them highly acidic on the inside, triggering death of the cancer cells.

"The cell goes into apoptosis, the cell suicide," Gdovin said. "It says I can’t recover from this. I’m going to kill myself."

Combining drugs and light is called photodynamic therapy. It zeroes in on cancer cells alone.

"The compound by itself does nothing toxic. The light by itself does nothing," Gdovin added. "It’s only when you have both of those things occurring simultaneously that you get this photodynamic acidosis and subsequent cell death."

Doctoral student Zachary Jordan says the idea is to give physicians new options.

"Surgery might be too invasive for a tumor that’s difficult to reach," Jordan said. "A treatment involving just an injection and a fiber optic line might be a less invasive option."

When scientists used the treatment on mice, the breast tumors shrank. Now the students who run Gdovin’s lab are working 24/7 to test this treatment on other cancers, from prostate to brain to lung, to see if this new therapy has broad applications.

UTSA biology major Kaisha Meyer says the lab receives phone calls from cancer patients around the world who’ve  heard the news. "I cannot wait until we can say 'we can help you,'" Meyer stated. "We’re working hard to get there. And I’m absolutely ecstatic that this might be the start of something amazing."

Gdovin gives a lot of credit to his students’ role in this innovation. "They all realize that they’re going to be part of something that’s bigger than us put together," he said. "It’s just huge."

For patient Teresa Farris, news like this provides hope. "I think anything that can be done that’s going to improve medications, improve therapies and improve cures, it’s a wonderful thing," she said.

Gdovin and three of his former students are applying for a patent. And he’s started a company called VitaNova Biologicals, Inc. to develop the drug, which will cost only a few cents per dose to create. He’s expects some of the phase one human trials to take place in San Antonio in two to five years. 

Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.