‘Panov program’ to study individualized cancer treatment

Yaron Panov is flanked by his wife, Dr. Rochelle Schwartz, left, and his physician Dr. Sharla Lichtman. [Paul Lungen photo]

TORONTO — Four years ago, Yaron Panov’s oncologist gave him what could be considered a death sentence. Panov was suffering from sarcoma, a particularly aggressive form of cancer, and doctors in Toronto had no solution. Their advice: go home and get your affairs in order.

Not content with that suggestion, Panov and his wife, physician Rochelle Schwartz, searched for options available in other jurisdictions. They found one developed by an American-Israeli company, Champions Oncology, which has proven effective and kept Panov alive longer than the months he had been given to live.

Now they want other Canadians to benefit from the same innovative technology that has helped Panov.

On May 4, a fundraiser was held to launch the Panov Program in Precision Chemotherapy, a co-operative venture of Mount Sinai Hospital and Champions Oncology.

It’s one part of a $3.8-million, three-pronged sarcoma research project at Mount Sinai, said Kevin Goldthorp, president of the Mount Sinai Hospital Foundation. The others will study the effectiveness of drugs on treating the disease and its genetic component. Contributors can designate that their donation goes only to the Panov program.

Panov and Schwartz say their goal is to raise $1.5 million over the next six months to fund three to five years of research into the efficacy of the treatment promoted by Champions. If successful, the results could prove persuasive when it comes to convincing OHIP to fund the technology, which can cost $15,000 to $20,000 for three to five chemotherapy trials.

That’s down from the $40,000 it cost Panov and Schwartz four years ago.

Schwartz said the approach developed by Champions, and employed in England, Singapore and Israel, has proven more successful than traditional chemotherapy.

Tissue samples are taken from the  patient and implanted in immune-deficient lab mice. The cancers are allowed to grow, and then the mice are treated with various chemicals to determine which drug works best.

Once that pharmaceutical is found, it can be used on the human patient, with 90 per cent assurance that if it worked in the mice, it will work in the person.

In addition to proving remarkably effective, it saves the patient the experience of undergoing the hit-and-miss, trial-and-error process that is currently employed. The cocktail of chemotherapy drugs may or may not work, but they often leave the patient feeling terrible, Schwartz said.

There is a tremendous need for new approaches to treat sarcoma. Fifteen per cent of all cancers in children are sarcomas, and it’s the cancer that took Terry Fox’s life, Schwartz added.

A recent study published in the journal Cancer showed there was a high degree of correlation between the results in the mice and in human patients.

The findings were published online in a study titled Patient-derived xenografts for individualized care in advanced sarcoma. Commenting on the findings, David Sidransky, director of head and neck cancer research at Johns Hopkins University and chair of Champions Oncology said, “It has been a long-time goal of the oncology community to develop therapeutics and treatment protocols that can be tailored to individual patients for the best outcomes. These data support the promise of using TumorGrafts to accurately predict drug response in clinical settings.”

Sidransky was guest speaker at the weekend fundraiser.

Schwartz said a meeting about a year ago with physicians from Mount Sinai led to the current pilot project. Once funded, the program will see 50 sarcoma patients in Toronto undergo the same procedure that helped Panov. Because of the cancer’s aggressive nature, he continues to take drugs to keep it under control.

Sharla Lichtman, Schwartz’s medical partner at the Genesis Professional Group and Panov’s physician, said the “shidduch” between Champions and Mount Sinai is “a win-win proposition.”

“Nobody’s making money here,” added Schwartz. “We’re making history.”

As for Panov, he is hopeful others can benefit from the treatment developed by Champions.

“As a patient, I don’t need to go through the trial and error and be told after three or four months, ‘Sorry, it doesn’t work.’

“When I go to this chemo, I know it’s working. There’s a reassurance that it worked in the mice, it will work on me.

“It gives such a boost to your morale and you feel better about yourself, that it can succeed since it was tested on a piece of my body.

“That’s huge in healing,” he said. “It’s better for you mentally and physically.”

To make a donation to the project, go to www.supportsinai.ca/panov, or call 416-586-4800.