Trials begin on pill that could control cancer

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The Independent Online

Medical Editor

Trials with patients have just started on a cancer "pill" that is designed to stop tumours growing and prevent the spread of disease.

While its inventor, British Biotech of Oxford, stresses that the project is at a very early stage, it says the drug, a chemical compound called BB-2516, has exciting potential.

The trials started last month in Britain and the US. So far, only 10 patients with either colon, ovarian, prostate or pancreatic cancer have been enrolled. For a month they will take two capsules a day. All are patients with secondary cancers for whom no standard treatment is available.

More patients will be recruited into the programme this year, to a total of 30 in each group. Additionally, Canadian authorities have given permission for a similar trial with patients with the skin cancer, melanoma.

Keith McCullagh, chief executive of British Biotech, said: "If you can take a pill every day for the rest of your life that keeps the cancer under control, it will transform people's expectations of cancer."

However, he warned against raising expectations too high at this stage, despite encouraging trials in animals.

He said: "Until we complete these preliminary human trials, we can't say anything positive."

The drug blocks the actions of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases. In cancer tumours they are overproduced. By disrupting their activity, BB-2516 should stop cancer spreading and prevent tumours from establishing their own blood supply, which they need to grow. It is designed to treat solid cancers, not leukaemias.

Trials in mice were successful and last year the safety of the drug in humans was tested on 30 healthy volunteers.

They took the drug for a day, then for a week without side-effects. The scientists were also able to establish that at different doses, enough of the drug survives in the bloodstream to be effective.

A spokeswoman for British Biotech said the company believed it was the first in the world to be at the clinical trials stage with this class of drug.

"It is very early days, but it is exciting," she said.

British Biotech was founded 9 years ago, and originally employed just 10 scientists. The workforce has since expanded to more than 300.