British team leads race for cancer `cure'

BRITISH scientists expect to beat American colleagues to be the first to test a new approach to cancer treatment in humans which works by cutting the blood supply to the tumour.

Fifty patients will be selected at Mount Vernon hospital, Middlesex, to evaluate the approach, which attracted attention at the weekend after US scientists revealed its success against tumours in mice. It featured angiostatin and endostatin, which, when given in combination, target the blood supply to the tumour, cutting off nutrients it needs to survive and grow. The drugs appear to be effective against all solid tumours including breast, colon, and lung, and differ from conventional chemotherapy, which directly attacks the cancer cells.

The work, the culmination of 30 years' research, was described as remarkable by Richard Klausner, head of the National Cancer Institute, who said he was giving it priority for development. This triggered a fivefold leap in the share price of Entremed, the company hoping to market the drugs.

But yesterday it became clear the Mount Vernon team, based at the Cancer Research Campaign's Gray Laboratories, is doing almost identical work and expects to begin human clinical trials this year, before the Americans.

The team announced a year ago that tests on mice using the drug combretastatin had shown it selectively attacked blood vessels supplying tumours. David Secher, director of drug development for the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "We have spent the last 12 months preparing for clinical trials and we hope to start them before the end of the year ... But it is far too early to say whether it is going to be effective. To hail it as a breakthrough would be irresponsible."

About 30 patients would be given the drug in the first phase to test its safety and set the right dose. That trial, lasting a year to 18 months, would be followed by a second-phase trial involving a similar number of patients over six to 12 months which would test its efficacy. "We would hope at the end of that time to have some indication of whether the drug is active," Dr Secher said.

The US research has been led by Judah Folkman, of Boston Children's hospital, who has worked on angiogenesis - the growth of blood vessels - for 30 years. Dr Secher said: "He has been doing excellent work ... but no one took much notice until now. We in Britain may end up starting human clinical trials earlier but we do not see it as a competition. We want to evaluate whether angiogenesis inhibition plays a role in the treatment of cancer."

Hamish McRae, page 21