April 1, 2008 / 4:21 PM / 12 years ago

DNA idea wins $1 million US cancer prize

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A researcher who hopes to design new cancer drugs based on the DNA missing from tumor cells has won a $1 million prize aimed to encourage innovative new cancer treatments.

The first annual Gotham Prize for Cancer Research went to Alexander Varshavsky, the Smits Professor of Cell Biology at California Institute of Technology, the organizers of the prize announced on Tuesday.

“His idea stood out because it was truly a novel approach to cancer therapy,” said Dr. Gary Curhan of Harvard Medical School, who teamed up with two hedge fund managers to develop the prize.

“Many of the current treatments have potential side effects and are not specific to the cancer. The one that he is proposing is very specific and has the potential to have few side-effects or even none,” Curhan told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Last May, Curhan joined hedge fund managers Joel Greenblatt and Robert Goldstein of private investment firm Gotham Capital to announce they had established a "club," Web site and a cash prize at www.gothamprize.org/ .

They said federal funding of cancer research has been flat, and the system of seeking money to do research is based around pleasing either National Institutes of Health supervisors or gatekeepers at the advocacy organizations that pay for research on specific types of cancer.

“We believe that making progress in cancer research means sharing ideas and encouraging out-of-the-box thinking,” said Greenblatt.

Varshavsky proposed an idea he called deletion-specific targeting, based on DNA that is missing from tumor cells but found in normal healthy cells.

“(It) involves, in a nutshell, the finding of a genuine Achilles Heel of cancer cells, i.e., their potentially vulnerable feature that won’t change during tumor progression,” Varshavsky said in a statement.

“A deletion-specific targeting-based drug is envisioned as a sophisticated molecular device that enters a cell, ‘examines’ it for the presence of cancer-specific DNA deletions, and thereafter ‘decides’ whether it entered a cancer cell, in which case the drug activates its warhead and kills that cell,” he added.

“There hasn’t been funding from government or a foundation or commercial enterprises for this approach,” Greenblatt told Reuters.

Varshavsky won the 2000 Lasker award, a prestigious prize for medical research, for his work in discovering a gene called ubiquitin, which is active in many cell types.

“When we evaluate the prizes we don’t look at the individual’s qualifications,” Curhan said. He said the group wanted to get ideas from all sources - including from people who are not experts in cancer.

“Our hope is that people will go to the site and read all the ideas that are there. The focus of the site is sharing all the ideas,” Curhan said.

“We hope that this will jump start other investigators to start looking at these ideas.”

The group also awarded the $250,000 Ira Sohn Conference Foundation Prize in Pediatric Oncology to Dr. Mark Carol, a neurosurgeon and entrepreneur, for his idea to deliver low-energy X-rays in sufficient amounts to kill cancer cells while at the same time protecting healthy cells and tissue.

Carol helped set up several California-based companies involved in diagnosing and treating cancer.

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