After daughter’s cancer death, family supports experimental treatment developed in Triangle

Bella Rodriguez-Torres in a photo from Facebook.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Researchers say it could be a major step forward in the fight against cancer. An N.C. State scientist has discovered a treatment, he says may stop cancer from spreading.

The drug is expected to be tested in humans within a matter of months thanks to a team effort from NC State, a Durham pharmaceutical company and a foundation named for a little girl who battled cancer for more than half her life.

When Bella Rodriguez-Torres was 4 years old, she woke up one morning unable to move. The cause of her paralysis: cancer spread throughout her body.

Doctors gave her weeks or months to live. Bella defied doctors’ predictions. She walked; she played; she helped other kids with cancer, but her own illness kept coming back despite every treatment tried. “You reach a level of desperation when you realize your child may not survive that is indescribable,” recalled Bella’s father, Raymond Rodriguez-Torres.

When she was 10, Bella’s battle ended, but her parents kept fighting. They created the Live Like Bella Childhood Cancer Foundation in their hometown of Miami. The foundation was designed to support families battling childhood cancer and ultimately find a cure.

The foundation funds research all over including a possible treatment discovered by NC State Professor Kenneth Adler. He started testing the treatment on chronic lung diseases, but then turned his focus to cancer. “We’re able to essentially block movement of cancer cells metastasis – the movement of cancer cells in petri dishes in the laboratory,” said Adler.

Rodriguez-Torres heard about Dr. Adler’s research and sent a portion of Bella’s Tumor to North Carolina for him to test. “After six years of scouring the earth and testing Bellas tumor against all types of substances, finally I heard the words ‘it worked’,” said Rodriguez-Torres.

“Every cancer cell we’ve looked at and treated with this drug has shown a response to this drug,” added Adler. That includes cells from rhabdomyosarcoma, the cancer that killed Bella. “It was bittersweet in the sense it was joy it was, ‘Oh my God it worked.’ At the same time for my wife and my other daughter and I it was how did we not find this, how did we not know about this?” said Rodriguez-Torres.

Still, he hopes the discovery may help others. So far it has only been tested in petri dishes, and mice, but it has stopped cancer metastasis in both. Since the drug, which is inhaled, has already been tested in people with lung disease, it will be tested first on lung cancer patients.

Durham pharmaceutical company Biomarck is developing the drug for clinical trials. Biomarck CEO, Brian Dickson, says he’s excited about the drug’s possibilities but he’s also realistic. “I feel really optimistic, however it doesn’t always correlate from animal to human so we have to be a little cautious,” he said.

Leftover drug not used in the clinical trials, could be available for children with cancer in what’s called “compassionate use.” Doctors and patients will know the drug is experimental, and may not work, but for some patients it may be worth trying. “We’ll make as much as we can and put it out but I can’t promise, as much as I’d love to, every parent out there that we’ll definitely be able to supply,” Dickson cautioned.

The Live Like Bella Foundation will field requests from families hoping to try the treatment. “One of the worst things you can hear, in addition to ‘Your child has cancer’ is ‘I’m sorry there’s nothing more that we can do’,” said Rodriguez-Torres, adding, “Now the hope is through this research there will be one more option.”

While there is no guarantee the drug will work in people, it gives Bella’s dad reason to hope for his daughter’s friends still battling the disease. “I believe Bella is here with us even though we cannot see her,” said Rodriguez-Torres, “Helping us to advance this so that her friends have an opportunity at life.”

If you’d like to learn more about the Live Like Bella Foundation for Childhood Cancer, click here: http://livelikebella.org/

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