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Albany Med Today

Dr. Higgins Aims to Reverse Cancer Driver

Paul Higgins, PhD, who has spent his career searching for an effective treatment for a rare, but deadly cancer recently identified an important gene and new drugs that could stop mesothelioma in its tracks.

Mesothelioma affects the lungs, heart and abdomen and is overwhelmingly caused by exposure to asbestos, a fibrous mineral once used in industrial insulation.

Dr. Higgins, co-director of the Center for Cell Biology and Cancer Research at Albany Medical College, has identified a way to arrest the spread of tumors using experimental drugs known as “small molecule pharmacologic inhibitors,” several of which are in development in his lab, and others of which have been developed by Japanese researchers with whom he is collaborating.

These drugs target a gene located inside mesothe-lioma cells that fuels their movement, causing the cells to metastasize.

“In normal physiology, this gene helps cells move from one place to another by creating a tissue scaffold. That’s good for healthy cells but not for tumor cells,” explained Dr. Higgins, who has been researching mesothelioma since the 1970s.

While still relatively rare (about 3,000 new cases per year), mesothelioma has been making a comeback in recent years despite the regulation of asbestos.

"The cases we see today include individuals exposed to asbestos from remediation projects as well as individuals who may have been exposed 30, 40 and even 50 years ago,” said thoracic surgeon Thomas Fabian, MD, who treats patients at Albany Med. Dr. Fabian has just published a review article on malignant pleural mesothelioma and its treatment in the Journal of Cancer Therapy, 2014.

Since 2008, Dr. Higgins’ efforts have been supported by $78,000 in grants from the Butler Family Foundation at the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region. The Butler Family Foundation, which works to improve awareness, education, resources, and treatment of mesothelioma in the Capital Region, was created in memory of Kevin J. Butler (1957–2006) of Troy, who succumbed to the disease. In 2009, Kevin's older brother Jay also died from mesothelioma.

“None of this work would have been possible without the generous support of the Butler Family Foundation, and I am very grateful,” Dr. Higgins said.