Now, here’s something to think about: can angiogenesis inhibitors, the famous class of tumor-starving cancer drugs, actually make some kinds of cancer worse?
This unnerving thought comes courtesy of two recent studies on VEGF pathway inhibitors which present what calls "intriguing, almost perplexing evidence" of just that. One team studied the effects of an anti-VEGF-receptor antibody or the VEGF kinase inhibitor Sutent (sunitinib) in mouse models of pancreatic cancer or glioblastoma multiformis. These are two very nasty tumors, and they’re just the sort of thing that people would like to be able to treat when a new drug comes along. But treatment with either the antibody or the small molecule significantly increased the number of metastatic cancers in the animal models, and I mean significantly: like 6% highly invasive tumors in the controls versus over 50% in the treated group. Admittedly, those numbers were in immune-compromised animals, but in mice with normal immune function, the numbers of metastatic tumors still rose by two- to four-fold.
The other study looked at injections of either metastatic breast cancer cell lines or melanoma lines in mouse models. The authors reproduced the effects of Sutent on the former – it inhibits growth of locally placed tumors, as it should (on past evidence). But if you inject cells into the bloodstream, the story is different. Pre- or post-injection treatment of the mice with Sutent led to an increase in metastatic tumors and a decrease in survival relative to untreated mice. Similar results were obtained with Nexavar (sorafenib), which also hits the VEGF kinase, among others.
That “among others” might be significant. The antibody study does make you think that this is a VEGF-driven effect, but it’s important to remember that both Sutent and Nexavar hit a famously wide variety of kinases. And as a Nature item on these results points out:
It is important to emphasize that both studies clearly recapitulate the clinical data that anti-angiogenic therapies can have significant, albeit transitory, effects on localized tumour growth. However, they raise interesting questions about the timing of anti-angiogenic therapy and whether combining these agents with chemotherapy or other targeted agents can counteract the observed unfavourable effects.
Oh, yes. Among these questions are whether the other VEGF-targeting drugs (like Genentech's Avastin) have this effect. You'd have to presume that they would. And what about other therapies directed at other anti-angiogenic targets?. They might, if the effect is brought on simply by low oxygen levels in tumor cells, or it might be something specific to VEGF. We also don't know, in general, which sorts of tumors respond in this way and which don't. But these findings should have effects on clinical practice, and soon. They didn't quite come out of the blue - it's been known since the anti-angiogenic drugs were developed that they didn't actually seem to cure cancers so much as knock them down for varying lengths of time. And in many cases, patients only survive a few months longer after treatment.
Every time I write something like that, though, I'm tempted to quote Peter Altenberg and say "What's so only"? But there still seems to be so much more potential in the idea - the same potential that led to a lot of hype and craziness a few years ago - and perhaps we're beginning to see where things went wrong. Can they be put right, or not?
And you know, perhaps it's for the best that Judah Folkman himself isn't still around to see these latest results. I don't think he would have despaired, but it wouldn't have been easy news for him to hear. . .