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Friday Frontline: Cancer Updates, Research and Education on April 3, 2020


From an investigational cancer therapy being studied as a treatment for COVID-19 to the NBA and NHL helping to raise over $500,000 for prostate cancer research, here’s what’s making headlines in the cancer space this week.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is fast-tracking potential therapies for the treatment of COVID-19, and therapeutics company Celularity announced that its experimental cancer therapy CYNK-001 is awaiting an “investigational new drug status” from the agency as a potential treatment for patients with the virus.

The New Jersey-based company is known for its treatment made from human placentas, which transforms stem cells into natural killer immune cells to be transfused into patients with cancer. The experimental therapy is designed to deliver reinforcements to the immune system, a rationale that immunologists say is sound but could be risky for the most severe cases of COVID-19 if the drug causes a side effect known as a cytokine storm, which occurs when the immune system goes into overdrive and attacks healthy organs.

While findings in small groups of patients with cancer have shown that the drug holds promise, virologists have cautioned that these results may not apply to patients with COVID-19. Celularity said it has modified the dosing schedule for use against a virus and is awaiting the FDA’s approval to conduct a clinical trial.

The FDA has ordered drug makers to pull the heartburn medicine Zantac (ranitidine) from shelves as new data shows a possible link to cancer.

The agency first saw evidence of Zantac’s link to cancers in 2019, and after further study determined that a chemical found in the medicine, NDMA, is a “probable” cause of cancer in humans. They have called for the drug, including all generic versions, to be pulled off shelves and to no longer be prescribed, cautioning consumers who still have pills to throw them away now.

“Since we don't know how or for how long the product might have been stored, we decided that it should not be available to consumers and patients,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock in an FDA statement that explained that storage at higher temperatures or for longer periods of time can increased levels of the dangerous chemical.

The agency has launched a further investigation after identifying a plant in India that included the chemical in ingredients it manufactured for use in the medication. However, the FDA has suspended most U.S. inspections due to travel restrictions associated with the coronavirus.

A patient with cancer who recently received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and scheduled surgery for late March is one of many facing delays in his treatment.

Ted Duffy, 85, is believed to be among a small fraction of patients with pancreatic cancer who could make a full recovery after surgery because his disease was found early, according to his wife Patricia Duffy, but his treatment has been postponed until at least April 15 as the hospital faces a surge in the number of patients with COVID-19. Patricia Duffy said she is “devastated” by the decision.

Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey, where Ted Duffy is being treated, is one of many centers that is triaging patients with cancer, postponing some procedures in order to focus on those with the most severe conditions in the face of overtaxed resources and concerns about spread of the virus, especially to people who are immunocompromised. According to Patricia Duffy, her husband’s surgery was not initially considered elective surgery that could be postponed, but then the status of the procedure was changed.

“I found it astounding that one of the largest hospital systems in North Jersey couldn’t dedicate or find a way to continue treating other people with surgical needs,” she said in an interview. The couple await news of the next steps they need to take.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) has announced a partnership with multiple companies to expand its offerings to patients, including a financial aid program, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This program will allow patients with blood cancer to seek funding assistance for non-medical and day-to-day expenses such as food, transportation and bills for those who may be struggling due to increased expenses and/or loss of income,” an LLS spokesperson said in a statement. Patients do not need a COVID-19 diagnosis to apply.

The current commitment to the program is $4.5 million with a goal to raise $10 million to help patients with blood cancers in financial need amid the pandemic. As of now, patients who apply and are eligible will immediately be given $250 dollars.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) announced that, in the second year of its annual Black History Month Assist Challenge, it raised $500,000 dollars for research with the help of NBA and NHL teams.

“The success of the pilot program that kicked off in Atlanta last year allowed PCF to recruit more teams to participate this year and reach millions more people — in particular, African American men who are disproportionately affected and are more than twice as likely to die from prostate cancer than men of other ethnicities,” Christine Jones, chief operating officer of PCF, said in a press release.

The goal of the program is to raise awareness about the disproportionate effect of prostate cancer in African American men and raise funds to research this area.

Teams included in the fundraising effort included the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and the New Jersey Devils hockey team, the first NHL team to join the program.

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