In June of 2012, University of Minnesota physics professor Cynthia Cattell, PhD, discovered that her nagging fatigue was something more serious than just end-of-semester burnout. She had aggressive B-cell lymphoma, a blood cancer that required immediate, intensive treatment.
That treatment—chemotherapy, radiation, and two bone marrow transplants—was brutal, leading Cattell into and out of the hospital for months. Worse, it wasn’t working; her cancer kept coming back. Then last spring, her doctor told her about a Phase I clinical trial underway at the University of Minnesota and asked if she was interested.
“I thought about it for about five minutes,” Cattell says, “then said, ‘Absolutely!’ Once you’re in a place where everything has failed, what do you have to lose?”
Cattell was now on a trajectory to meet Daniel Vallera, Ph.D., a University colleague who heads a research lab at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota. Vallera, a professor in the Department of Therapeutic Radiology, had retooled his lab in 2000 so he could focus solely on producing cancer drugs.
“My career goal had become [to] produce a drug that will cause complete remission in a patient with cancer, and that’s what I’ve focused on: developing new anticancer agents and getting them into the clinic as quickly as possible,” Vallera said.
His weapon of choice in the war against B-cell lymphomas is something called a “targeted toxin.” These drugs allow Vallera to manipulate genes, which in turn gives him the ability to develop biologic agents that hone in on specific types of cancer cells and deliver a death blow. It’s a much more precise approach than traditional chemotherapy, which kills not just cancer cells but healthy cells as well.
Using the bacteria diphtheria as his toxin, Vallera created the innocuously named DT2219, the drug Cattell would soon encounter in the clinic.
Into the clinic
University of Minnesota Cancer Care Hematologist/Oncologist Veronika Bachanova, MD, PhD, launched a Phase 1 clinical trial focusing on the use of Vallera’s DT2219 to treat cancer.
“I was aware of the drug that Dan had developed,” said Bachanova, who sees lymphoma and leukemia patients in University of Minnesota Health clinics. “I was immediately interested in bringing the drug to clinic for patients whose standard treatment options had failed.”
Bachanova designed the study and enrolled 10 patients, including Cattell, who responded beautifully to DT2219. While she suffered minor side effects—primarily weight gain from water retention, and a low white blood cell count—Cattell felt healthy throughout the treatment, which was delivered in four separate infusions over the course of eight days. One month later, Bachanova found a whopping 75 percent reduction in the size of Cattell’s tumor.
Although the parameters of the trial called for just one course of treatment, Bachanova felt Cattell might benefit even more from a second course.
“They asked me if I would be willing to do it again,” says Cattell, “and I said yes immediately. On the scale of what I’d had to deal with in the other treatments, the side effects were very manageable. And it was working!”
One month after her second round of DT2219, Cattell’s tumors had vanished and, nine months later, she remains in complete remission.
What Vallera does—working at the molecular level to develop drugs—is painstaking, rigorously regulated, and seriously expensive.
While the National Cancer Institute has supported his work for more than 30 years, two extraordinary philanthropists helped Vallera bring this drug to trial so that patients like Cattell could benefit.
On a cold day in late November, Vallera got a rare opportunity to come face to face with Cattell, who had gone into complete remission because of a drug he had developed.
“To meet the person who developed the drug that saved your life? Incredible. I’m so grateful for the work he’s done, and I hope that by participating in the trial, I’ve helped them learn more about the drug and that it will help save other people,” Cattell said.
Vallera and Bachanova are now taking DT2219 to the next level with a Phase I-II clinical trial, which includes patients with lymphoma and Acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“We’re so excited by the responses we saw in the first phase and have high hopes for this next trial,” says Bachanova.