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UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center

Joe Tuscano: Seeks alternative approach to lymphoma

Photo of Dr. Tuscano © 2009 UC Regents
Joe Tuscano

It wasn’t serendipity that led Napa winemaker Norman deLeuze to UC Davis oncologist and researcher Joe Tuscano.

Tuscano, after all, had a track record hunting for novel approaches to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a disease that affects more than 53,000 Americans each year and that kills an estimated 19,000. His work developing antibodies to seek and destroy lymphoma cells has garnered more than $1 million in federal cancer research funds and is expected to result in new, targeted treatments for the disease.

DeLeuze had been diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a subtype of non-Hodgkins’s disease, and was adamant in his refusal to undergo what cancer specialists in Napa and at Stanford University said he would need — traditional chemotherapy and a possible stem cell transplant.

Tuscano told deLeuze that he agreed with his specialist colleagues about his need for chemotherapy, but he also recognized the patient’s dogged determination to try non-toxic alternatives — even if unproven.

“I told him, “There are better things out there, and you should go with what is proven, but I would support you and take care of you regardless,” Tuscano recalls.

Among his many attempted remedies, deLeuze was taking a natural product called Avemar made from fermented wheat germ extract that had shown some promising results in laboratory tests.

Tuscano monitored his patient, and saw that over time the winemaker’s tumors shrank, spurring him to take a deeper look at the product. What he found was that Avemar killed lymphoma cells grown in cultures in the laboratory.

Tuscano was further motivated with a $313,000 donation for additional research from the deLeuze family, which later established the deLeuze Family Endowment for a Nontoxic Cure for Lymphoma. The family hopes the endowment will reach $1 million or more with continued community outreach efforts.

Tuscano and other scientists from his laboratory then tested it in tumor-prone mice. Again, tumors shrank and in some cases, disappeared.

After a two-year, painstaking effort to find the mechanism of action in Avemar, Tuscano and his colleagues have identified 17 proteins that make the product effective against lymphoma. The team has submitted a patent application, and has agreed to collaborate with Avemar maker American BioScience Inc. to continue work on developing the product as a lymphoma treatment.

Norman deLeuze lost his battle with lymphoma in October, 2007. But Tuscano and his deLeuze family benefactors continue to put their hopes and energy into finding the kind of alternative therapy for lymphoma that Norman deLeuze had envisioned.