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It Takes a Team to Beat Head & Neck Cancer – and Some Help From Pelotonia

By Steve Wartenberg|July 19, 2016

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is readily available – and it works.
“But only about 5 percent of men and 26 percent of women have been vaccinated,” said Ted Teknos,MD,  head of Head and Neck Oncologic Surgery at The James.
This means about 80 million people in the United States are infected with HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s spread through sexual contact and can lie dormant in the body for years, or forever, but can also spring to life and cause genital warts in men and women, cervical cancer in women, and head and neck cancer in men and women.
The goal of  Dr. Teknos’ lab team is to discover how HPV causes head and neck cancer – and successfully treat it. And, with initial funding from Pelotonia, a member of his team has tested a drug that reactivates the body’s ability to ward off cancers before they develop, grow and spread.
This drug could be used in clinical trials as early as 2017, according to Ted. And, if it is eventually approved by the FDA, it would be a tremendous breakthrough in the treatment of head and neck cancers, for which there are two primary causes: smoking or chewing tobacco, and HPV. The American Cancer Society estimates there will be about 50,000 people diagnosed with head and neck cancer in the United States this year, and about 10,000 deaths.
“This drug could also be used to treat cervical cancer,” Dr. Teknos said.
Team is an important word for Ted, who is a member of several.
When he was recruited to come to the James and Comprehensive Cancer Center, it was the leadership of Dr. Michael Caligiuri and the team of cancer doctors, scientists and researchers he was assembling that piqued Ted’s interest. And, when it became clear he could bring a four-person laboratory team with him from the University of Michigan, well, the deal was done and this team of super scientists came to Columbus in 2007.
And then there’s Ted’s Pelotonia team. His actual team/Peloton is Team Buckeye – Team Head and Neck, which has more than 50 members. Dr. Teknos has ridden in every Pelotonia with them, but has also become part of a bigger team: the growing Pelotonia community.
“For me, Pelotonia is an annual pilgrimage,” Ted said. “I think about our past and future patients and the research we need to do to figure out how to help them. I think about the people we lost, the people who inspire me, the comradery of it.”
The four collaborators who came with Ted from Michigan are: Quintin Pan, PhD, Pawan Kumar, PhD, Bhavna Kumar, MS, and Mozaffar Islam, PhD. The connection between HPV and head and neck cancer is the thread that runs through all their research.
Dr. Pan is the researcher developing the new drug that shows such great potential.
“He determined that the HPV E6 protein binds to p300, which is an important protein that alerts the p53 protein that something is wrong, and then the p53 activates the suicide gene that kills these cancer cells,” Dr. Teknos said of how HPV causes head and neck cancers, which include tongue, mouth, pharynx and other oral cavity cancers.
When the E6 binds to the p300, the “switch” is turned off and the cancer cells grow out of control and wreak havoc on the body.
“Dr. Pan determined where the binding occurs” through computer modelling and developed a drug to reactivate the p53, Dr. Teknos said. “We tried the drug in the lab and the cancer cells died, and then we grew human HPV cancer cells in mice and gave them the drug alone, or in combination with chemotherapy, and it worked.”
The Merck Serono pharmaceutical company and other venture capital groups “are investing $10 million for the pre-clinical work on this drug, with the idea of taking it to the FDA in 2017,” Dr. Teknos said.
In addition to helping to fund the development of this new drug, Pelotonia is a yearly inspiration for Dr. Teknos and his teams. His brother, Tom, will ride with him for the first time this year and his wife, Kari, has ridden in the past. Ted and Kari have six children, ages 3 to 19, which means several more from the Teknos family will be joining the Pelotonia team in the years to come.
“Pelotonia brings people together,” Ted said.
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