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NOVA

Cancer Warrior (#2805)

Odyssey of a treatment In the early 1960s, a young doctor named Judah Folkman embarked on a scientific voyage that would ultimately redefine our understanding of cancer. Today his persistence is paying off with a new class of drugs that fight tumors by cutting off their blood supply. In a television exclusive, NOVA tells the story of Folkman's forty-year quest to treat cancer with a revolutionary new strategy, on The Cancer Warrior, airing Tuesday, February 27 at 9pm ET on PBS (check local listings). In November 2000 an eagerly awaited report at an international cancer conference cautiously announced encouraging results from the first human trials with the drug Endostatin, discovered in Folkman's lab in 1996. Patients tolerated the drug well with few side effects, and in some cases tumors shrank markedly or stopped growing. Through extensive interviews with Folkman and members of his research team, NOVA charts the difficult detective work that led from a surprising observation and a controversial hypothesis to this promising new weapon against cancer. Participating in the Endostatin trials and other therapies pioneered by Folkman, who is professor of surgery at Children's Hospital in Boston and Harvard Medical School. In 1960 when he was a surgical resident, Folkman was drafted by the U.S. Navy to help find a substitute for whole blood to meet the navy's need for transfusable blood on long voyages. What he discovered instead was a startling secret about how cancer grows. It was a clue he would pursue for the next forty years. About ten years into this search, Folkman published a paper in which he speculated that tumors could not grow larger than the size of a pencil tip unless nourished by their own networks of tiny blood vessels. He speculated that the tumors themselves secrete a molecule that stimulates new blood vessels to grow, a process called angiogenesis. Almost none of Folkman's colleagues believed his theory, and for the next ten years, he searched for that molecule. Today seventeen such molecules have been discovered, and the theory is widely accepted. But Folkman wasn't satisfied with just understanding how cancer grows_he wanted to make it stop growing. So he began the search for a molecule that would block the growth of new blood vessels_essentially, starving the tumor. The problem was where to find it. The search began with the cartilage in cow bones. Because cartilage has no blood vessels, Folkman theorized that it might contain an angiogenesis inhibitor that keeps vessels away. Though the effort took more than a decade, Folkman's lab managed to track it down. Another inhibitor was found by a combination of luck and scientific detective work when a fungus blew into the lab. What seemed like a disaster, threatening to contaminate everyone's experiment, turned out to contain a molecule that inhibited the growth of blood vessels. Another approach created a new use for the notorious drug Thalidomide, which was discovered to inhibit new blood vessel growth. Thalidomide is a tranquilizer that caused severe birth defects when prescribed in Europe in the early 1960s as a morning sickness medication for pregnant women. It is now being used in clinical trials to treat some cancers. In 1987 Folkman suggested a startling new place to look for angiogenesis inhibitors: the tumor itself. Why would a tumor, which stimulates new blood vessel growth, produce an inhibitor of blood vessels? The answer not only led to the discovery of a potent inhibitor of angiogenesis, but also solved a century-old medical puzzle. It was long known that in some rare cases of cancer, the surgical removal of the primary tumor would be followed by a rapid growth of small metastases that had spread to other locations. Could the tumor itself be secreting a molecule that kept the metastases at bay? When the tumor was removed, did that also remove the inhibitor? After a series of ingenious experiments involving the collection and analysis of large amounts of mouse urine, such inhibitors were found: Endostatin and Angiostatin, natural proteins that prevent tumors from stimulating new blood vessel growth. Judah Folkman started his long journey as a lonely warrior in the battle against cancer. Today hundreds of labs around the world are working on angiogenesis. More than two dozen drugs that inhibit blood vessels are in development or in clinical trials. Many scientists believe that we are on the verge of a new paradigm in understanding cancer in which the disease is no longer viewed as a death sentence but as a disease that can be controlled with an arsenal of weapons used in combination to prevent tumor growth. [56 minutes] Closed Captioning

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Grade Levels
6-8, 9-12
Curricular Areas
Science & Technology
Series Length
421 episodes
Average Episode Length
61 minutes
Record Rights
Record and retain for 1 year from each broadcast. No duplication allowed.
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Series Description: PBS' premier science series helps viewers of all ages explore the science behind the headlines. Along the way, NOVA programs demystify science and technology and highlight the people involved in scientific pursuits.

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