BURLINGTON, Vt. – University of Vermont researchers have made a breakthrough in their study of possible treatments for malignant mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

A promising potential therapy being hailed as the ‘first-of-its-kind’ is headed to a Phase I clinical trial.

“It is very difficult to make a discovery in the laboratory and then go through all the necessary steps to get this to clinical trials,” said Dr. Randall Holcombe, director of the UVM Cancer Center. “Generally, that often takes 10 to 20 years.”

Only one percent of research discoveries like this manage to advance to a clinical trial, and since 2004, only two therapies have been fully approved as a treatment option for malignant mesothelioma.

Dr. Brian Cunniff helped identify the new treatment over a decade ago as a Ph.D. student, and continued his work as a faculty member at the Larner College of Medicine.

“There’s a large jump from the bench to the bedside, so the ability of our findings in a lab to enter a clinical trial is very rare,” Dr. Cunniff said. “It’s a really great feeling to know something we’ve been working on, feel very passionate about, and have a strong feeling will help patients has been financially supported, as well as transitioned to a clinical trial.”

But what makes the treatment so unique? Dr. Cunniff said that as aggressive cancer cells grow and try to survive by any means possible, they create a significant amount of waste. That waste isn’t as useless as it might sound.

“What this therapy does is actually interfere with the ability of the cell to get rid of that waste product, and it becomes toxic and builds up,” Dr. Cunniff said.

Dr. Debra Leonard, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, recalled how Dr. Cunniff first described the therapy to her.

“Like sticking a potato in the tailpipe of cancer cells,” Dr. Leonard said. “It’s astounding, amazing, exciting.”

The excitement of the breakthrough itself, however, pales in comparison to the excitement about what the research could eventually mean for mesothelioma patients, and even cancer patients in general.

Dr. Cunniff said his team’s research suggests the approach could also be effective for other types of cancer.

“Sometimes it’s hard to conceptualize the transition of your findings or your research to actually having an implication in patients and humans,” Dr. Cunniff said. “Having now experienced and interacted with people who have died or know others who have died from mesothelioma, it’s a great feeling knowing we can contribute to this cause.”

Dr. Cunniff and his research team worked in collaboration with Wake Forest School of Medicine and RS Oncology. The clinical trial will launch in England in late 2021, and the Cunniff Lab at the University of Vermont Cancer Center will serve as a primary site for translational research utilizing patient samples.