Multiple myeloma doesn’t play around. Within five years of being diagnosed with this form of blood cancer, about half of all patients die from it. And even if they initially respond well to treatment, the cancer can hide in their bone marrow for years before reemerging in a tougher-to-treat form.

Osama Elzamzamy, a doctoral student in the West Virginia University School of Medicine, is researching a new drug for use when multiple myeloma just won’t leave a patient alone. He is part of WVU’s doctoral program in clinical and translational science.

The drug, called MTI-101, targets recurrent multiple myelomas that have grown resistant to other cancer drugs.

“It’s very effective,” Elzamzamy said. “It actually causes cell death in 10 or 20 minutes.” 

To accomplish this feat, the drug overwhelms the cancer cells with calcium, which destroys them. But “it doesn’t stop there,” Elzamzamy said.

Pairing the drug with another drug that inhibits a specific protein can amplify its calcium-blasting effects, even at a lower dose. That’s important because lower doses may mean fewer negative side effects.

Both drugs work by inundating the cancer cells with calcium, and they do it “on the same pathway, through a very specific calcium channel,” he said. They have a stronger effect together than they would apart. Out of the hundreds of drugs that Elzamzamy and his colleagues screened, only the one that inhibits the specific protein gave the drug a boost in performance.

“We tested this combination in blood samples from healthy individuals, and they both are safe so far. We tested the combination on a relapsed primary patient sample, and they both functioned as we have seen in myeloma cell line models,” Elzamzamy said. 

Next, Elzamzamy plans to test the drug’s safety and observe its efficacy against multiple myeloma in animal models. 

“Multiple myeloma is a disease that is not curable with standard therapies. Novel treatment strategies are required to improve the lives of patients living with it,” said Lori Hazlehurst, who mentors Elzamzamy and leads the research project. She is a professor in the WVU School of Pharmacy and a co-leader of the Alexander B. Osborn Hematopoietic Malignancy and Transplantation Program within the WVU Cancer Institute

Hazlehurst, Elzamzamy and the rest of the research team are collaborating with Modulation Therapeutics, a WVU-based incubator company, on this project. Hazlehurst is the company’s president and co-founder. The National Cancer Institute has funded the project.

“Multiple myeloma is a pretty vicious disease, and there’s no cure yet,” Elzamzamy said. “That’s what we’re trying to do with MTI-101.”