PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – It was a revolutionary idea. A way to treat cancer without the side effects of chemotherapy and invented by John Kanzius, a man originally from our area.
But that treatment, which doctors called “promising,” has hit a major roadblock.
Human trials of the treatment are now delayed indefinitely because of legal battle.
Earlier this year, Trinity High School in Washington, Washington County, named John Kanzius a distinguished alumnus.
His widow Marianne accepted the award.
“I think it’s wonderful. John would have been very touched and would have loved it because this is where he started,” said Marianne Kanzius.
But Kanzius is best known for something he did later in his life. He came up with a groundbreaking idea to treat cancer with radio waves.
“His sister had it. His mother had it,” said Marianne. “But not until it was in his own body, did he realize that some of the treatments were things that he considered inhumane.”
It was 2008 in Erie County, when we met John Kanzius at his lab in Erie. He had been diagnosed with leukemia.
“And I said to my wife, there has to be a better way to treat cancer,” said John Kanizus at the time.
That better way came from his background, which was in broadcasting. He was not a doctor but was anxious to show us what radio waves can do.
While putting a light bulb between two metal boxes, he moved a dial.
“Now if I crank it up higher, you can see how bright the bulb gets,” said Kanizus. “The interesting thing is, you put your hand in here and you don’t feel anything.”
But the waves will heat up tiny pieces of metal called nanoparticles injected into the body. He wondered if those particles could be directed just to cancer cells and then heated up to kill the cancer.
“I don’t know whether I’ll be around for it to make a difference, but it was never about me,” said Kanzius. “It was really about others.”
John Kanzius died three months later.
But his idea lived on. Five years ago, we visited Doctor Stephen Curley in Texas, where the oncologist and his team continued to test Kanzius’ idea.
He demonstrated the radio waves ability to potentially zap a cancer cell.
Highfield: “Did it get hot enough there to kill a cancer cell?”
Dr. Curley: “The answer is, we way overshot killing a cancer cell.”
Dr. Curley explained how he had made a promise to Kanzius.
“He said, ‘I just want to know that this is going to go on.’ And I said, ‘John, you have my assurance that I’m going to get this to human trials.”
And it looked like human trials would happen last summer in Italy, but then the money stopped.
NeoTherma Oncology, which owns the patent on the Kanzius device, stopped paying Baylor College of Medicine, where Curley does his work.
Baylor sued, claiming NeoTherma breached a $9 million contract, after paying only $800,000.
But NeoTherma countersued, claiming Baylor didn’t fulfill the terms of the contract.
“I was frustrated at first, and then I became angry,” said Joyce Savocchio, a former mayor of Erie, who led the early fundraising efforts for Kanzius’ idea.
“I saw hope grow, not only here in Erie, but from all over the country,” said Savocchio.
She says the Kanzius Foundation raised $11 million before it reached its goal and closed.
That money has already been spent to push research forward and is not part of the lawsuits. But she believes the idea that a legal fight is keeping human trials from happening, isn’t fair to the donors who helped research move to this point.
Highfield: “What do you think those people are owed now?”
Savocchio: “I think for all the people who believed in this, who hope in it, they’re owed a successful conclusion.”
Doctor Curley says losing the funding was a major blow.
“We lost about 90 percent of our lab staff because of issues with funding, and we were able to kind of carry on with a skeleton crew,” said Dr. Curley.
Neither he nor Marianne Kanzius are allowed to talk about the current legal battle.
But Mrs. Kanzius says her husband’s idea is already influencing cancer treatment.
“There has been a change in medicine because of what he has done even though his initial treatment has not been before the FDA,” said Marianne Kanzius.
And Doctor Curley says at this point, if human trials do go forward, it would not be with the original Kanzius device. Instead, he says they’d need to expand on Kanzius’ idea with what research has taught them.
“I think John would be ecstatic and excited by some of the things we’ve learned,” said Dr. Curley.
Despite the current stalemate, Marianne Kanzius holds on to the belief that one day her husband’s dream will become reality.
Marianne Kanzius: “And that is what we’re hoping for, and looking forward to.”
Highfield: “And you still believe that’ll happen?”
Marianne Kanzius: “Oh I do. I do. Yes.”
KDKA-TV contacted NeoTherma, the company that owns the patent to see what it plans to do next, but so far, there’s been no response.
The case is set to go to court this fall, and the outcome will determine a lot.
Meantime, Doctor Curley says they continue to apply for grants, and he says they’re hoping to find some big investors to keep this alive.