Did you know that May is National Cancer Research Month? As the American Association of Cancer Research states, this observance “recognizes the importance of cancer research”: after all, without basic research and the skilled scientists pursuing it, we would never have means of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. 

Cancer research has been a major focus of the Weizmann Institute of Science since its early days. Our scientists were among the first in the world to demonstrate that cancer develops in a multistage process; since then, they have made major advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Today they are deeply invested in the development of personalized cancer therapies.

Weizmann Institute scientists have conducted groundbreaking research on a number of cancers, including breast and prostate. In fact, Prof. Yosef Yarden just received the 2017 Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, for his discoveries in the biochemistry of cancer. Prof. Yarden revealed the function of an enzyme, HER2, that strengthens the chemical signals that cause cells to become cancerous, and which is found in particularly large amounts in breast and ovarian tumors. His work is leading to new cancer treatments.

Ovarian cancer is uniquely difficult to identify, diagnose, and treat, and is often found too late. It also tends to be aggressive and treatment-resistant. Fortunately, the Weizmann Institute has some of the world’s finest scientists on the case.

More than 35 years ago, the legendary Profs. Varda Rotter and Moshe Oren were among the first to discover the role of the p53 gene in cancer. They’ve been studying p53 ever since, and have now found that it can help fight ovarian cancer.

The p53 gene is a tumor suppressor; however, when it mutates, it promotes cancer instead. Profs. Rotter and Oren’s team looked at peptides – which can easily bind to p53 – and found several that were able to convert mutant p53s to a relatively normal state – to effectively “reeducate” them. Noting that one of these peptides was particularly effective against a number of cancers, the scientists tried it in mice with tumors taken from human cancers.

The results were stunning: ovarian and breast tumors shrank, and sometimes even completely disappeared – and with no apparent adverse effects to the animals, which bodes well for treatment in humans.

Profs. Rotter and Oren – who is now head of the Institute’s Moross Integrated Cancer Center – are currently working with Yeda Research and Development Co. Ltd., Weizmann’s technology transfer arm, to move their “therapeutic peptides” toward medical application.

“In cancers such as ovarian cancer, the p53 gene may be 100% mutated. And the prognosis for this cancer is still very poor,” says Prof. Rotter. She continues: “So we hope that a drug that ‘reeducates’ mutant p53 would have a profound effect on the outcome for these patients.”

A drug therapy that has a “profound effect” has already been developed for prostate cancer. The technique, which Profs. Avigdor Scherz and Yoram Salomon began developing in the 1980s, destroys prostate tumors by cutting off their blood supply. The method uses fiber optics to light up a unique chlorophyll-based compound, Tookad® soluble, at the tumor site. This destroys surrounding blood vessels, basically starving the tumor to death – and leaving healthy tissue intact. The procedure can be performed quickly, on an outpatient basis, and has few, if any, negative effects.

Clinical trials showed the technique to be so successful in treating early-stage prostate cancer that it was recently approved by Mexico’s health authority. It’s also now in advanced trials in Europe and Israel, and extensive U.S. clinical trials are underway at Manhattan’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Profs. Scherz and Salomon’s Tookad® method could soon help even more people: clinical trials involving Memorial Sloan Kettering, the Weizmann Institute, and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory will investigate its use for pancreatic cancer.

You can help the Weizmann scientists who are devoting themselves to creating innovative treatments for cancer. Together we can ensure that this lifesaving research continues to happen … for the sake of women and men everywhere.