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New treatment at UNM battles deadly brain cancer

Clinical trials underway at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center could offer a new tool for fighting a deadly form of brain cancer too often immune to conventional treatments, such as radiation therapy, researchers said.

The first drug trials with people have shown promise in attacking glioblastomas, or solid brain tumors — the type of brain cancer that Sen. John McCain is battling and that took the life of his former Senate colleague Edward Kennedy in 2009.

In fact, McCain’s fight with brain cancer could bring the Arizona Republican to UNM for treatment if conventional treatments fail to effectively fight the disease, Dr. Cheryl Willman, CEO of the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center, told an Albuquerque business group Wednesday.

The UNM Cancer Center is participating in Phase 1 clinical trials for a cancer-fighting drug manufactured by Bexion Pharmaceuticals, a privately held biotech company focused on the development and commercialization of innovative cures for cancer. Phase 1 trials are used for therapies that have never before been tried on human subjects.

Dr. Olivier Rixe oversaw clinical trials at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of which might provide a treatment option for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“The patients treated at UNM Cancer Center are among the first in the world to be given this drug,” said Dr. Olivier Rixe, who oversaw the clinical trials’ national protocol development, and directed the trial in New Mexico and at other sites in the U.S. He is a professor of hematology/oncology and associate director for clinical research at UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The drug used in the Phase 1 trial, called BXQ-350, has been shown in pre-clinical studies to induce cancer cells to die, but have little effect on normal cells, according to the Cancer Center. Phase 1 clinical trials test how safe a drug is for people and how it affects the body.

Early clinical trials that tested the safety of BXQ-350 showed “it had a very good safety profile,” Rixe said.

He said he is hopeful the drug will be effective for patients diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a particularly aggressive brain cancer.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Sen. McCain underwent surgery in July for a brain tumor that was later found to be a form of glioblastoma. He has undergone radiation and chemotherapy since August to fight the cancer, according to news reports.

Willman said the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where McCain began cancer treatments in early August, contacted physicians at UNM about the possibility of enrolling the senator in the Phase 1 clinical trial underway in Albuquerque.

“The key is, if he needs this treatment and he can qualify, which we are working on, we are more than happy to support him on his journey,” Willman said after a meeting of the Economic Forum of Albuquerque.

The federal Food and Drug Administration requires that conventional therapies have been shown to be ineffective before a patient can enroll in a Phase 1 trial, Willman said, adding that the best outcome for the senator is for the conventional treatment to be successful.

The BXQ-350 trial is just one of a dozen Phase 1 clinical trials that Rixe and his team have initiated at the UNM Cancer Center.

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