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A zillion-dollar cure idea

Monique Doyle Spencer (International Herald Tribune)
Filed on August 20, 2008

IT WAS a 23-year-old medical student, Ernest Duchesne, who discovered penicillin 32 years before Alexander Fleming. But who listens to a kid? So the idea went nowhere, and Duchesne, due to God's really immature love of irony, died of tuberculosis. So did a lot of other people.

So now I know something that I need to tell the world. There is a new study from a university in Turkey about a treatment for a painful chemotherapy side effect. The side effect is from a chemotherapy drug for metastatic, or in medical terms 'not so great,' breast and colon cancer. The drug is Xeloda (capecitabine). It's a good drug, but for some reason, it can burn the daylights out of your feet and hands. Your response comes in Grades 1, 2 or 3. In Grade 3, you can't walk. Your feet are covered with blisters, and it's like walking on some evil form of bubble wrap.

There is no proven treatment for this side effect except this: to lower the dose or stop or delay treatment. These are not great options.

I don't do a lot of cancer research, but my husband does. He found the study on www.springerlink.com. Researchers tested a simple treatment, long used by desert dwellers to cool the skin. It's pure henna powder, mixed with lemon juice and hot water.

I was desperate with Grade 3. I tried every cream and vitamin idea that anybody had. Nothing worked. I spent a week lying down for relief. Please don't tell my employer, because apparently nobody noticed I wasn't there.

I'm no New Ager, I don't own a single Enya CD, and I was skeptical. I asked my oncologist. He was all for it. I tried the henna. You make a paste out of green powder, even though it's going to dye your skin saffron. You leave it on for six hours. I just knew it would not work.

Holy Mother of God. The fire is out. My feet feel ... normal. Now the creams can work, to heal the damage to the skin, because the big flame is put out. No blisters. No raw skin. No heat.

I couldn't wait to notify Roche Pharmaceuticals, which makes Xeloda. The company had no information about this on its Web site, so I knew it would jump right on it. I figured Roche would contact these guys in Turkey, fund a bigger study, then develop its own zillion-dollar version of henna. I don't care what it does, as long as it does something.

Roche wrote back. It told me to read its Web site to be informed about possible side effects of Xeloda. While I admit that I was just a teensy bit annoyed, I actually did look at it for the umpteenth time. Well, I noticed a new thing, besides that it offers no cure for this side effect: that the photos it shows of it are about one-tenth as bad as the real thing.

Here's the best part: Roche signed its response: 'Thank you for your interest in Xeloda. We wish you and your mother the best of health.' Yikes. Mom died in 1988. What are they trying to tell me?

Of course, the problem with natural remedies is that you can't patent them, so you can't make any money. Still, I bet a company could extract the active ingredient from henna, make an ointment for pennies, and turn around and sell it for dollars, but I'm not a scientist. I'm just thinking that since Xeloda costs $1,500 every three weeks, and you take it for life, maybe a pharmaceutical company could fund a study.

Whether there's a windfall in it or not, I think if you make a great product, and it happens to cause an awful side effect, maybe you could be a little interested in a treatment. I picture Ernest Duchesne writing to them about penicillin. 'We are sorry to hear of your death as we care about our patients. Please see our Web site for helpful information and tips about tuberculosis.'

Monique Doyle Spencer is author of The Courage Muscle: A Chicken's Guide to Living With Breast Cancer


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