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Research briefs

Network - Summer 2012

Commonly used cancer drug eliminates morphine tolerance

Seeing children endure chronic pain associated with cancer treatment inspired Howard Gutstein, M.D., professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, to focus his research on pain management. Specifically, he wanted to find the cause of morphine tolerance, which develops over time and makes the drug ineffective for pain relief.  

Gutstein and his colleagues found that the cellular process that causes morphine tolerance can be blocked by a reformulated form of imatinib, a drug commonly used to treat certain kinds of leukemia and gastrointestinal tumors. Since imatinib, known by the brand name Gleevec®, is already approved for use in humans, Gutstein hopes soon to translate his findings on the reformulation of the drug through animal studies and Phase I trials in humans.  

Blocking tolerance would make lower doses of morphine more effective, also reducing undesirable side effects associated with morphine, including itchiness, nausea and difficulty breathing.

Researchers discover connection between platelet count and cancer

As early as 1867, doctors noticed that cancer patients are at high risk for developing blood clots. Recently, MD Anderson professor Anil Sood, M.D., and colleagues discovered an explanation and a vicious cycle: The body reacts to tumors by producing high amounts of platelets, which then feed tumor growth.

Sood, professor in the Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine and the Department of Cancer Biology, found in a Phase I/II clinical trial that treatment of ovarian cancer patients with siltuximab, an antibody to the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-6, sharply reduced platelet counts during a three-week period.

More research is needed to understand the connection and perhaps take advantage of it to treat people. Platelet levels may also serve as biomarkers for detecting ovarian and other cancers.

Two drugs shrink tumors in Ewing’s sarcoma patients

By combining two drugs, researchers shrank tumors in some patients with treatment-resistant Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer that primarily affects the bones and most often occurs in teens and young adults.

The two drugs address molecular pathways that cause cell growth and survival, abnormal blood vessel growth, and resistance to chemotherapy and radiation.

Lead researcher Aung Naing, M.D., assistant professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics, says that prior to the Phase I clinical trial, patients were heavily treated and became resistant to most other treatments.

Five of 17 patients with Ewing’s sarcoma responded to the treatment. Their tumors reduced by more than 20%.  

When the two drugs, cixutumumab and temsirolimus, were used as single agents, treatment results were mixed. Researchers theorized that combining the drugs would help stave off onset of drug resistance, a common occurrence and major obstacle in cancer treatment.

Learn more about MD Anderson research here.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center