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Alternative cancer treatments

CARNA MED Cancer Medical Clinic Director Yoshinori Takayanagi questions the conventional methods of treating cancer: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

News photoYoshinori Takayanagi, director of DAL Co,. speakes during an interview at the Enjin office in Tokyo. SATOKO KAWASAKI

"I want cancer patients to ask their doctors, 'Would you prescribe this treatment for yourself or your family?'" said Takayanagi of the Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture-based clinic.

The three conventional methods sometimes have severe side effects that may be life-threatening in some cases. Takayanagi's clinic specializes in two other cancer treatments: immune cell (immunotherapy) and genetic therapy treatments.

Immunotherapy, the so-called fourth treatment, involves taking cells from a patient's body, cultivating them into immune cells and infusing them back into the patient. It has no side effects, but it is not covered by national health insurance.

Some 80 percent of cancer drugs do not have any effect. Doctors prescribe multiple cancer drugs in the hope that a few of them actually work.

Meanwhile, immunotherapy is like a custom-made treatment for each individual patient.

His clinic's affiliate, DAL Analysis Laboratory, also based in Sapporo, cultivates NK (natural killer) cells, dendritic cells, Gamma Delta T cells, NKT (natural killer T) cells and naive T cells.

Naive T cells are transformed inside a body into killer T cells, helper T cells and memory T cells. Killer T cells kill cancer cells, helper T cells help grow killer T cells and memory T cells store memory to create killer T cells in case cancer cells develop.

Major Japanese biotech company Takara Bio Inc. has a patent on naive T cells and there are only five organizations in the world that cultivate naive T cells, which are in Sapporo, Kyoto and Osaka, he said. DAL Analysis Laboratory cultivates the largest number of naive T cells, he added.

Four other organizations have mainly been created as a result of joint projects among business, academia and governments. It is rare for a single entity such as CARNA MED to commit to the costly practice of growing immune cells.

The necessary equipment can easily cost ¥100 million. They also need to hire people to manage the cell cultivation.

Why bother? Takayanagi's answer is simple.

"This is the treatment I would use for myself and my family."

Also, he decided to build his own laboratory because he wants to make sure he uses high-quality immune cells.

Before opening CARNA MED in 2012, he had a clinic in Kushiro, another city in Hokkaido, where he saw cancer patients. Initially, he was outsourcing immune-cell cultivation to other companies. But their delivery is not consistent, he said.

"Sometimes, we ask for 1,000 cells and they deliver only 800 in order to make the delivery deadline. I cannot trust laboratories that always follow deadlines because cell development is not consistent," he said.

Also, some cells die during transportation and thus having his own laboratory reduces waste, he added. In Kushiro, he once had to tell a patient that the immune cells had not arrived because flights had been cancelled due to bad weather.

Because of a lack of public understanding of immunotherapy, Takayanagi's patients are usually suffering from late-stage cancer. "Patients who have nowhere else to go come to me as the last resort," he said.

"I want to say out loud that immunotherapy is a treatment that works for early-stage cancers as well," he said.

Another type of cancer treatment Takayanagi offers to his patients is gene therapy, the fifth treatment.

Genetic therapy involves injecting adenovirus containing the so-called p53 gene, or what Takayanagi calls the "cancer seppuku (cutting belly)" gene.

This treatment, like immunotherapy, is not covered by national health insurance and does have side effects, though they are slight. The adenovirus causes coldlike symptoms.

Takayanagi injected himself with the adenovirus with the p53 gene. He had coldlike symptoms, such as a slight fever, for a few hours but felt perfectly fine the following day, he said.

It is rare that a single clinic offers a combination of immunotherapy and gene therapy treatments, he said.

Takayanagi said he wants to stress to other cancer doctors that immunotherapy does not compete with conventional treatments. Rather, it can complement conventional treatments.

For example, an old man with bladder cancer received gene therapy treatment before radiation therapy, and told Takayanagi happily that his urine once contained lots of pus, which was apparently dead cancer cells, he said.

In one of the drawbacks of immunotherapy and gene therapy treatments, patients cannot be hospitalized. If patients cannot walk, they should first receive conventional treatments to reduce the size of the cancer and then immunotherapy and gene therapy, he said.

In another project, DAL Analysis Laboratory began cellular analysis to find out what genes cause what side effects from what cancer drugs in January last year.

The project is significant because cancer drugs weaken the immune system, making it easy for patients to contract other diseases. Those who have fought cancer with chemotherapy for a long time, including kabuki actor Nakamura Kanzaburo, sometimes die of pneumonia and other diseases because their immune system has been weakened.

This series has been prepared in collaboration with Enjin Co., which produces and operate a video website, kenja.tv, specializing in profiles of up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Asia.