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Ask the expert

Jill Siegfried, M.D., is associate director of the Translational Research program for the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota.

Why does it take so long for promising cancer drugs to move out of the lab and into doctors’ offices where patients can benefit?

Jill Siegfried, M.D., explains how Masonic Cancer Center scientists are working to speed up research projects showing the most potential.

What happens once a scientist discovers something he or she believes could be useful in the fight against cancer?

JS: Let’s say the investigator discovers a protein that helps make a cancer grow faster; we’ll call it X. So the goal is now to find ways to inhibit X from “feeding” the cancer. Researchers might then identify a molecule that, in a petri dish, prevents X from growing. At any time along the way, things can and do fall apart, which means you start again.

At what point does the new compound get to human trials?

JS: Scientists need to be sure it won’t cause more harm than good. Is it too toxic for humans? Or is it metabolized so quickly that it doesn’t even get to X? They’ll test these things in other mammalian species first, before finally bringing it to human clinical trials.

Is there any way to speed up the process?

JS: That’s the purpose of the Masonic Cancer Center’s Cancer Experimental Therapeutics Initiative. It focuses on identifying the most promising therapies across all the labs and making sure that limited funds are channeled in the most effective way.

Would more money help get drugs to market faster?

JS: Absolutely. Economics come into play at every stage: in the lab when you’re applying for grants to get the work going, finding partners to help finance clinical trials, pharmaceutical companies deciding which drugs will make the most money … We’ve had a tremendous shutdown of government funds for research, so private philanthropy and business partnerships have become critical. It’s heartbreaking to see so much promising research limp along because investigators don’t have funds to keep going. But what people should realize is that the No. 1 thing that drives new discoveries is the unwavering commitment of the scientist to make it happen.

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