Can we beat chronic liver disease and reduce the risk of liver cancer?
By Mark Feitelson, Ph.D., Department of Biology, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122
Millions of people worldwide suffer from chronic liver disease (CLD) associated with hepatitis B and C virus infections, alcoholism and obesity. These conditions reduce the quality of life and elevate the risk of developing liver cancer. Liver cancer is among the most prevalent types of cancers in the world. There is no cure for CLD and few options for treating liver cancer. By the time most people are diagnosed with liver cancer, the tumor has spread too far in the body for curative treatments, such as surgery or liver transplantation. Among the roughly 700,000 new cases of liver cancer diagnosed yearly, at least 600,000 of these people die. Moreover, the frequency of CLD and liver cancer are increasing in many parts of the world.
Through research in his lab at Temple University, Dr. Mark Feitelson has revealed a potentially breakthrough approach to treating these diseases. There is increasing evidence in the medical literature that the composition of bacteria and other microbes in the intestine are altered among people with CLD and liver cancer. Since these organisms make compounds that help to keep us healthy, the imbalance in bacteria seen among ill patients may mean that there is also an imbalance in the composition and levels of compounds that are available to keep us healthy. His lab followed up on this observation and identified several compounds that have strong anti-inflammatory activities, which means they may be effective against CLD. These compounds also have strong anti-cancer properties meaning they may delay, prevent and/or be useful for the treatment of liver cancer. To test this, Dr. Feitelson’s lab used a mouse model in which hepatitis B virus triggered CLD, which progressed to liver cancer by 10 months of age. When these mice were fed with a mixture of the compounds above, the incidence of both CLD and liver cancer was cut in half. Among mice that developed tumors, they were fewer and smaller. At these doses, there was no evidence of toxicity, which is a problem with most other treatment approaches. Further, when these compounds were given to mice with already existing tumors, the tumors shrank in size, indicating that they had a direct anti-tumor effect.
The big question then came up as to whether these compounds were effective in people. To test this, Dr. Feitelson’s lab chose to give these compounds to a handful of patients suffering from psoriasis, which is a chronic inflammatory disease of the skin. Many of the inflammatory immune responses present in CLD were also present in people suffering from psoriasis. The prediction was that these people, like the mice, would be responsive. When these compounds were provided orally to people with psoriasis, their lesions improved within a few weeks, with no side effects. The lab chose psoriasis because it was simple and fast to observe lesions on the skin. In contrast, resolution of lesions in the liver would occur more slowly, and would take a much longer time to evaluate whether the compounds were working.
This combined information now suggests that there may be a simple, effective and non-toxic approach to the treatment of CLD, liver cancer and possibly many other chronic inflammatory diseases. This is the basis for the creation of SFA Therapeutics, Inc., which is now looking for collaboration and investment to further develop and apply these exciting and promising findings.