Curing cancer takes heart — or heart hormones, maybe

Dr. David L. Vesely, 65, began his work fighting cancer as a tribute to his wife, who died of breast cancer.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Dr. David L. Vesely, 65, began his work fighting cancer as a tribute to his wife, who died of breast cancer.

TAMPA — Dr. David Vesely's amazing hormones have returned from their world tour. In June in Shanghai, Vesely gave a keynote speech: "Cardiac Hormones for the Treatment of Cancer." In September in Istanbul he gave another: "Novel Cardiovascular Hormones." In October in Nuremberg: "Magic Bullets for the Treatment of Congestive Heart Failure, Renal Failure and Cancer."

The world of medical research is taking growing notice of Vesely's discoveries, made in a maze of small, crowded labs at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center. The widowed father of five, whose wife died of breast cancer in 2002, has big, seemingly impossible hopes that four hormones manufactured by the heart may one day save millions of lives.

The hormones, whose everyday jobs are to control the size of heart cells and regulate blood pressure, also appear to possess miraculous powers untapped by medicine. In Vesely's labs, the hormones have killed the deadliest of human cancers and reversed congestive heart failure and kidney failure.

About 14 months ago, Vesely was introduced to Tampa Bay during a time-out at a University of South Florida football game. The Bulls had just scored over the West Virginia Mountaineers, and the crowd had exploded. Hardly anyone noticed the gray-haired scientist smiling and waving on the 10-yard line.

Since then, Vesely has addressed more sober international audiences and published numerous papers, including this one in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation: "Cardiac and Kidney Hormones Cure Up to 86% of Human Small Cell Lung Cancers in Mice."

All this was sparked almost seven years ago by the death of Clo, Vesely's wife. Vesely was then researching how peptide hormones made by the heart control the growth of heart cells, rid the body of excess salt and lower blood pressure. Their fourth-born, Brian, was helping out in the lab.

Brian asked his dad to consider a cancer project as a memorial to Clo. Vesely always had been intrigued by how the hormones regulate normal cell growth in the heart. He wondered whether they might affect cancer cell growth.

The investigation was on. Brian observed the first breakthrough himself. Monitoring cultures of cancer cells treated with the hormones, he observed 97 percent obliteration of the cells in 24 hours.

In the past year, the research has largely shifted from test tubes to animals.

Vesely has focused on some of the deadliest inoperable cancers — among them small-cell lung cancer and pancreatic cancer. He has developed a protocol something like chemotherapy: Mice that have been infected with human cancers are pumped with varying combinations of the hormones over a four-week period. In most cases, the cancer tumors shrink or disappear altogether without side effects.

"Everything we've done," Vesely says, "has confirmed the path we're on."

His team's research has found that the hormones disrupt errant triggers and pathways in cells that allow cancer tumors to grow. The hormones appear to inhibit the DNA synthesis of cancer cells.

The next step will be to test the hormones on humans.

Vesely hopes to receive funding from an Australian biotech firm to study the effects of the hormones on 20 patients with congestive heart failure. If those patients experience no side effects, Vesely says, more people would be added to the trials.

He has found no funding yet for cancer trials.

But many cancer patients already have heard of him. He says he receives hundreds of e-mails from cancer patients volunteering for trials.

"I tell them we're not ready yet. But we have to find out, one way or another, if we can help people."

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2253.

Curing cancer takes heart — or heart hormones, maybe 12/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 29, 2008 11:47am]

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