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It was nearly three years ago that Earl Woodard was told he had Stage Four colon cancer. People with that diagnosis, on average, only live 14 to 17 months.
Instead, he's sitting in the bleachers with his wife, Libby, watching their 8-year-old son Jared play Little League.
"I got to see him, in his last game, score the winning run," he said. "My goodness, what a thrill."
Researchers want to be cautious about how thrilled they get when they look at a patient like Woodard, who has no remaining cancer they can detect. But his improvement may be a sign that a long-sought weapon against cancers is finally showing success in patients.
They are trying to fight a process called angiogenesis, the formation of blood vessels in a person's body. In a healthy adult, angiogenesis is rare. It is triggered when a wound is healing, or during a woman's menstrual cycle.
It can also be set off by a cancerous tumor. In order to keep growing, the tumor sends out chemical signals to make blood vessels grow around it, so that it will have a supply of nutrients. If a cancer drug can stop angiogenesis -- the formation of those blood vessels -- the tumor will not be able to grow and do harm.
At least, that was the theory. It was elegant in its simplicity; it worked time and again in the laboratory. But one antiangiogenesis drug after another failed in patients -- until now.
In Clinical Trials
Woodard, a 54-year-old airline pilot, happens to live a couple of hours down the road from Duke University Medical Center, where Dr. Herbert Hurwitz was leading a trial of an angiogenesis drug called Avastin.
Woodward was given the drug in addition to regular chemotherapy. Like many other cancer patients, he found the treatment grueling. But he remembers the day, last summer, when he and Libby sat down with Hurwitz for an update.
"We were very shocked when Dr. Hurwitz first told us that they couldn't find anything on the X-rays and the CT scans anymore. In fact, I recall him looking at us and saying, 'This is good news. You can smile now.'"
Woodard's story is remarkable to hear, but researchers caution that his was a remarkable case. The experiment was a Phase III trial -- the final test of a drug, to see if it is effective. Some 800 patients with advanced colon cancer were included. On average, Avastin appeared to lengthen their lives by about five months. It is not yet on the market, and other tests are being conducted with it.
"This is not a cure," said Hurwitz. "It is a potential improvement, and it may make an impact for some patients, but it is not yet a cure.
"We now have blue-chip Phase III data that support the relevance of targeting tumor angiogenesis for at least one human cancer," he said, adding that if they knew how well it would work for other types of cancer, "we wouldn't be having this discussion; we would be fortunately be curing many more people."
Small Steps Toward Progress
Still, for researchers who measure progress in tiny steps, this could be a big one. The Angiogenesis Foundation, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., calls it "a milestone for improving cancer treatment." It counts Avastin as one of five anti-angiogenesis drugs currently in Phase III trials, and counts 67 trials in earlier stages.
If angiogenesis drugs prove effective in enough of those tests, they could become an important part of the doctor's arsenal.
Woodard said he cannot tell if he was saved by the drug, or by caring doctors and nurses, or by the prayers of loved ones. He says he understands researchers' caution.
"Of course, my perspective is somewhat more narrow," he said. "Let me show you."
With that, smiling broadly, he kicked up his heels.
Watch Ned Potter's report on World News Tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET.
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