The first human trials of this experimental, cancer-killing drug could change everything

If you saw Bob Rulli on the street, you’d never guess he had cancer. He’s the first person to receive a first-of-its-kind drug made in Cincinnati.

Properly mixed, the medicine came out as a dark brown liquid. A nurse brought the intravenous bag to the side of a recliner, where a man with brain cancer sat. The nurse hung the plump bag on a stand and prepared the treatment for delivery. The moment had arrived for BXQ-350 to meet its first human patient.

For the man, and for the medicine, the stakes could not have been higher.

BXQ-350, by Bexion Pharmaceuticals of Covington, Kentucky, is a first-of-its-kind cancer treatment, a new approach discovered, developed and tested in Greater Cincinnati. The innovative drug is made from a human protein and does something unlike any other: It weaponizes the special mechanics of cancer to destroy it, without affecting healthy cells.

That the treatment killed nothing but cancer so jarred federal regulators that they had demanded more research in animals. But on a September day in 2016 at the University of Cincinnati’s Barrett Cancer Center, brainpower and money at last brought BXQ-350 to a critical first test for government approval.

In the infusion center, the nurse asked Bob Rulli of Fort Thomas if he was ready. She aimed the needle and punctured his arm. Patient No. 1 watched his body take in the dark brown mystery.

A ‘eureka’ moment

Cancer is a scourge of southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. The region’s six health systems and VA hospital are expanding infrastructure to meet demand. Still, a person diagnosed today has four basic courses of treatments: chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and immunotherapy. Complicating progress are side effects, difficulties in tolerating drugs and collateral damage to healthy tissue.

All that medicine knows about cancer is a fraction of what it doesn’t know. Breakthroughs come by surprise.

The “eureka!” moment for the new treatment can be pinned to a day in 2002 in a laboratory at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. There, a genetics researcher named Xiaoyang Qi was studying the action of a human protein on mice.

But when he peered into his microscope, he was amazed. The protein had fused to the walls of cancerous cells, and those cells had died. The healthy cells were unaffected.

The researcher couldn’t believe it. Then he couldn’t forget it.

For years, he tinkered with the protein, building a new molecule with a remarkable talent. No matter the variety of cancer, no matter where in the body, cells treated with the molecule died.

“And,” Qi said, “I’m the only one who sees it.”

At a 2006 Xavier University reception, Qi talked about his work with Dr. Kevin Xu, a senior research scientist at Procter & Gamble. Intrigued, Xu shared the data with a P&G colleague, Ray Takigiku, who found the information “mysterious, curious and interesting.”

The P&Gers decided the idea was worth the risk of a lifetime.

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