Penn: New Combo of Chemo and Well-Known Malaria Drug Delivers Double Punch to Tumors

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Media Contact:Karen Kreeger | Karen.kreeger@uphs.upenn.edu | 215-459-0544February 20, 2012

Blocking autophagy -- the process of "self-eating" within cells -- is turning out to be a viable way to enhance the effectiveness of a wide variety of cancer treatments.

Specifically, blocking the action of an acidic inner cell part, which acts like a stomach and chews up proteins for recycling, is the main attack strategy, says Ravi K. Amaravadi, MD, an assistant professor of Medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine and Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Amaravadi will give a presentation on the role of autophagy in fighting cancer at the annual American Association for Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.

His lab and others have demonstrated that adding hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) — an FDA-approved drug used commonly for malaria and rheumatoid arthritis -- to many cancer therapies, including chemotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation, and immunotherapy, can enhance the antitumor activity of these drugs in laboratory models of treatment-resistant cancers, and ongoing clinical trials.

Autophagy is increased in cancer cells. Normally, it is a survival pathway allowing a cell to recycle damaged proteins when it's under stress and reuse the damaged parts to fuel further growth.

Cancer cells might be addicted to autophagy, since this innate response may be a critical means by which the cells survive nutrient limitation and lack of oxygen commonly found within tumors. And, it is likely to explain how some cancer cells evade chemotherapies by using, essentially, a work around.

Nearly 30 phase I and Phase II clinical trials involving HCQ have been launched or are in planning stages in many different malignancies, including melanoma, multiple myeloma, renal cell carcinoma, colon cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and others.

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