When Anna Olivia Healey died of cancer aged nine, her grieving parents vowed to honour their daughter’s memory and help find a way of beating the cruel disease.
Now, more than 20 years later, Steven and Barbara’s goal of sparing thousands of other families from the same heartbreak looks within reach.
For scientists yesterday unveiled results of a ‘cancer-killing pill’ — named in honour of Anna — which appeared to ‘annihilate’ all types of solid tumours tested against in a lab.
AOH1996, coined using Anna’s initials and year of birth, seemingly left healthy cells unharmed, too.
Even though it’s not yet proven to work in humans, researchers from the prestigious City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles are hugely excited by the preliminary findings.
AOH1996 is named after Anna Olivia Healey, who died in 2005 from a deadly childhood cancer, neuroblastoma
Born in Indianapolis in 1996, Anna — who was described as ‘loving life’ and who ‘lived each day with an inspiring positive attitude’ by her parents — lived with neuroblastoma for five years. Her brother Brian was just six when she passed away
Since it’s creation in 2002, the A.N.N.A. Fund — established by Anna’s parents — has raised more than $500,000 (£390,000) for neuroblastoma research and families with neuroblastoma
Dr Linda Malkas, who pledged to do everything she could to tackle the disease after meeting Steve just months before Anna died from neuroblastoma in 2005, said the results were ‘promising’.
AOH1996, a type of targeted chemotherapy, zones in on a protein present in dozens of cancers that helps tumours grow and multiply internally.
Until now, the protein — the proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) — was thought to be ‘undruggable’.
Explaining how the drug works, Dr Malkas said: ‘PCNA is like a major airline terminal hub containing multiple plane gates.
‘Data suggests PCNA is uniquely altered in cancer cells.
‘This fact allowed us to design a drug that targeted only the form of PCNA in cancer cells.’
She added: ‘Our cancer-killing pill is like a snowstorm which closes a key airline hub, shutting down all flights in and out only in planes carrying cancer cells.’
AOH1996, yet to be officially named, was tested on 70 different cancer cells in a lab — including breast, prostate, ovarian, and lung cancer.
Results shared in the journal Cell Chemical Biology yesterday showed that it worked against them all.
Since its creation in 2002, the A.N.N.A. Fund — established by Anna’s parents — has raised more than $500,000 (£390,000) for neuroblastoma research and families with neuroblastoma.
Born in Indianapolis in 1996, Anna — who ‘lived each day with an inspiring positive attitude’ — battled neuroblastoma for five years.
Her brother Brian was just six when she passed away.
At the time, Dr Malkas worked as an oncologist at Indianapolis University School of Medicine.
Her initial research focused on breast cancer, studying a protein found in cancer cells but not normal cells.
Speaking about her work in cancer research last year, Dr Malkas said: ‘She died when she was only nine years old from neuroblastoma, a children’s cancer that affects only 600 kids in America each year.’ I met Anna’s father when she was at her end stages. I sat him down for two hours in my office and showed him all of my data on this protein I had been studying in cancer cells.’ Pictured, Anna with her father and brother
Mr Healey, a photographer, had been asked to take photographs of Dr Malkas for a newspaper article. There he told her his daughter, Anna, was at Riley Hospital for Children. At age 8 years, Anna had been living with neuroblastoma for almost half of her life
But after meeting Mr Healey over the course of just two hours, she was inspired to switch her focus and her research into neuroblastoma began.
Speaking about her work last year, Dr Malkas said: ‘She died when she was only nine years old from neuroblastoma, a children’s cancer that affects only 600 kids in America each year.
‘I met Anna’s father when she was at her end stages.
‘I sat him down for two hours in my office and showed him all of my data on this protein I had been studying in cancer cells.’
Mr Healey, a photographer, had been asked to take photographs of Dr Malkas for a newspaper article.
There he told her his daughter, Anna, was at Riley Hospital for Children. At age 8 years, Anna had been living with neuroblastoma for almost half of her life.
Neuroblastoma accounts for only eight per cent of all cancers, but is responsible for 15 percent of all cancer-related deaths.
Months later Anna’s parents re-visited the lab to see firsthand the work Dr Malkas did.
‘[Steve] asked if I could do something about neuroblastoma and he wrote my lab a check for $25,000 (£20,000),’ Dr Malkas said.
‘He said, “Dr. Malkas, we know you do all this great work on breast cancer, but if you could do something for neuroblastoma, it would mean the world to Barbara and me”,’ she said. ‘This set the whole thing in motion.’
She added: ‘That was the moment that changed my life — my fork in the road. I knew I wanted to do something special for that little girl.’
City of Hope-developed AOH1996 to target a cancerous variant of the protein PCNA. In its mutated form, PCNA is critical in DNA replication and repair of all expanding tumors. Left, untreated cancer cells. Right, cancer cells treated with AOH1996 undergoing programmed cell death (violet)
She spoke with several laboratories, but none could commit the necessary time and resources.
Then she received a phone call from the City of Hope, asking to meet with her and discuss the possibility of bringing her to their institution.
When Dr Malkas began her work at the centre in 2011, she did so with a mandate: to develop a molecule that would shut down the same protein she had helped identify, PCNA.
In its mutated form, PCNA is ‘critical’ in the replication of DNA, and the repair of all ‘expanding tumours’.
The results noted that AOH1996 selectively killed cancer cells by ‘disrupting the normal cell reproductive cycle’.
As a next step, the researchers will now look to understand the mechanism of action better to further improve the ongoing clinical trial in humans. A phase one study is already underway.