Georgetown University Medical Center researchers have identified a therapy for a rare type of lung tumor using a new cell technology that allows scientists to test different treatments on individual patients’ cell cultures stored in labs.

The finding, which was published in the Sept. 27 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, marks the first viable treatment for human papillomavirus-positive recurrent respiratory papillomatosisthat has spread to the lung.

According to the study’s official press release, RRP is the most commonly found tumor in the larynx and is passed from mother to child at birth through an HPV-infected birth canal. Under normal circumstances, tumors would be surgically removed to clear the airway, but this treatment is not always effective, and the disease can become fatal if it spreads to the lungs.

Researchers at GUMC established live cultures of a case patient’s tumor and normal cells utilizing a new cell technology, called conditional reprogramming, that uses the Rho kinase inhibitor and fibroblast feeder cells. They were then able to study and screen various procedures in the lab before administering the treatments to the patient.

According to Richard Schlegel, chair of the Department of Pathology at Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and senior investigator for the project, one of the drugs tested,vorinostat, was able to treat tumor cells without harming normal ones. After three months, the tumor cells treated with vorinostat shrank and no new tumors formed. The patient then took the drug for a year, during which time the tumors stabilized.

According to Schlegel, the ability to test out the drug on a sample cell using conditional reprogramming was critical to their research.

“Normal cells usually die in the lab after dividing only a few times, and many common cancers will not grow, unaltered, outside the body,” Schlegel said. “But now, from a small biopsy of someone, we can rapidly grow cells out of that biopsy and expand it within a week so that we can do … testing as well as look at different drugs that preferentially kill tumor cells rather than normal cells.”

Schlegel added that the personalization of cancer treatment is a significant outcome of the research findings.

“Because every tumor is unique, this advance could make it possible for an oncologist to find the right [therapy] that both kills a patient’s cancer and spares normal cells from the treatment’s toxic side effects,” Schlegel said. “We have shown for a specific lung tumor that our approach was successful in identifying an appropriate therapy for a single patient. We now need to do this for hundreds of other cancer patients who have different types of cancers.”

Despite the advances heralded in the study, the press release cautioned that the treatment must undergo much further scrutiny before it can become widespread.

“It could be years before validation studies [for this new technology] are completed and regulatory approval [is] received for its broader use,” it said.

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