Clinical Trials at NCI Showing Promising Results for Mesothelioma Treatment

Medical oncologist Dr. Raffit Hassan

Fifteen years after medical oncologist Raffit Hassan started studying the complexities of mesothelioma and the tumor antigen to attack it, he is seeing tangible rewards for his work.

Breakthroughs can take a long time.

Hassan is an investigator and chief of the Solid Tumor Immunotherapy Section in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the National Cancer Institute, involved now in some particularly-encouraging clinical trials.

“We’re starting to see some very exciting results,” Hassan said Thursday night during a teleconference sponsored by the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation. “There’s a lot more work to do, but there is reason for optimism.”

Hassan delivered his message to more than 90 listeners as part of MARF’s Meet the Experts series. “Mesothelin: A New Target for Immunotherapy,” was the title of his presentation.

Mesothelin is a usually-harmless protein that becomes over-expressed in particular cancers like ovarian, pancreatic and mesothelioma. It is being harnessed to help bind toxic drugs to cancerous tumors, effectively killing cancer cells and extending lives.

Hassan believes it can add months — and eventually years — to the lives of mesothelioma patients, if the right drug combinations can be found.

Hassan talked extensively Thursday about the success of previous clinical trials involving SS1P, a drug that has worked well with mesothelin, especially when combined with other chemotherapy drugs.

Hassan recently completed one clinical trial involving SS1P, and is close to starting another, now looking for suitable candidates to further the research. The trial has produced considerable interest among recently diagnosed mesothelioma patients from across the country.

There are several types of mesothelioma, but all of them are rare and all of them are caused by an exposure to asbestos fibers. It is diagnosed in an estimated 3,000 Americans annually, typically an occupational disease that has been most common among veterans of the military.

SS1P has not yet been approved by Food and Drug Administration because it remains in the testing phase.

“We’ve treated more than 100 patients with the drug. If it binds to the tumor, it will kill it,” he said. “We’re excited about some of the things we’ve seen.”

One of the positives of the SS1P drug is the lack of any lingering side effects, according to Hassan. Although there is some initial weight gain and fluid retention, most of the effects disappear quickly.

One of the advantages of joining a clinical trial at the NCI is the cost. It is virtually free, regardless of any insurance you might have.

Because it is federally funded, the NCI does not charge for the doctors, the drugs or any treatment provided. The only cost is the travel of the initial visit. If part of the trial, subsequent travel costs to the NCI in Bethesda, MD will be covered. Participants are screened closely to ensure patients are suitable. If  you are interested in an NCI clinical trial, you can call 1-800-4-CANCER.

“Our goal is to make sure it benefits the patients,” he said. “When I came to the NCI about 15 years ago, we thought this would be a good target with which to treat cancer patients.  And we thought this would be a good target for mesothelioma. It is a tumor for which we really need to develop good treatments. The more people working toward that the better.”

The success with mesothelin and drugs like SS1P are one reason why Hassan believes his clinical trials for mesothelioma will continue showing positive signs. Around him, he has felt the budget cutbacks that have reduced funding for research and other trials. That has not happened with him.

“Funding is an issue everywhere, and it is an issue at the NCI, definitely,” he said. “The last 2-3 years, we have seen decreased funding, but the NCI prioritizes studies and if it feels the study will benefit patients with cancer, and lead to new treatments, they support us and what we’re doing. We have studies that patients have been helped the most.”


Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer with more than 30 years of reporting national and international news. His most recent experience is in researching and writing about asbestos litigation issues and asbestos-related conditions like mesothelioma. If you have a story idea for Tim, please email him at tpovtak@asbestos.com

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