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Oklahoma medical researchers have developed a cancer drug, and it’s headed for human trials

Dr. Doris Benbrook, the director of the Women's Cancer Program at OU Health
Dr. Doris Benbrook, the director of the Women's Cancer Program at OU Health

The research team is housed within OU Health, which held a briefing Wednesday. They announced the cancer drug, named OK-1, was the first to be developed entirely in Oklahoma. Researchers obtained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin phase 1 human trials. These are usually conducted on small groups of people who have undergone other treatments that didn’t work for them.

The researchers are hopeful this drug can kill cancer without the miserable side effects that come with current treatments like chemotherapy.

Dr. Doris Benbrook is a professor at the medical school and leads the research group. She explained how the drug works in layman's terms: Normal cells can tell when they’re multiplying too fast — at a rate that’s out of control — and the body makes them die off. Cancer cells should do that, but they have cellular bodyguards that protect them. Those are called chaperone proteins.

“That is how OK-1 can kill cancer cells,” Benbrook said. “It attacks — it binds these chaperone proteins and blocks their bodyguard function. And this allows the cancer cells to undergo the natural form of cell suicide. And this is also how OK-1 doesn't harm healthy cells, because healthy cells are not dependent on these chaperone proteins.”

Protecting those health cells is a driving force in developing the drug. Dr. Kathleen Moore explained why. She is the associate director of clinical research at the Stephenson Cancer Center, within OU Health. She said she is proud of the broad range of therapies the center can provide, and that as an oncologist, it is great to see patients who have had to undergo six or seven rounds of treatment living longer.

“But the flip side of that, and they'll tell you this if they were standing here, is that they're tired, and years of therapy takes a toll,” Moore she said. “They walk with a cane. They have had rashes. Their bone marrow is not the same that it used to be. Their GI systems don't work. You know, there is cumulative toxicity from these drugs.”

The team secured several multi-million dollar grants from the National Cancer Institute to develop and test the drug in laboratory settings, Benbrook said. One of the top goals was to develop a form of the medication that could be taken by capsule.

“We felt it would be easier for a cancer patient to take a bottle of capsules home to administer the drug, instead of having to come into the clinic and be poked and infused with toxic chemical therapy,” Bembrook said.

The trials will be conducted at OU Health’s facility, in Oklahoma City’s biomedical and research district.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Catherine Sweeney grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and attended Oklahoma State University. She has covered local, state and federal government for outlets in Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington, D.C.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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