News / Toronto

The Panov Program: How Rob Ford’s new cancer treatment came to Canada

A terminal cancer patient whose life was saved by an experimental procedure is trying to bring it to Canada.

Yaron Panov and his wife, Rochelle Schwartz, right, with Yaron's family physician, Sharla Lichtman. Panov was diagnosed in 2011 with the same type of cancer Rob Ford is now being treated for.

Torstar News Service

Yaron Panov and his wife, Rochelle Schwartz, right, with Yaron's family physician, Sharla Lichtman. Panov was diagnosed in 2011 with the same type of cancer Rob Ford is now being treated for.

It was midsummer 2010 when Yaron Panov was told he only had a few months to live. Doctors had diagnosed him with a form of malignant liposarcoma, the same rare and aggressive cancer afflicting Councillor Rob Ford.

Six years later, Panov is alive and well thanks to several, small beady-eyed mice that unshackled him from the dire prognosis.

“He was given a death sentence but he now hopes to see his grandchildren and God willing, he will,” said his wife, Dr. Rochelle Schwartz.

Now, Ford, Toronto’s former mayor, is turning to the same treatment through a clinical trial at Mount Sinai Hospital named after Panov. The program will make Ford one of the first patients in Canada to take advantage of the U.S.-Israeli biotech firm Champions Oncology’s “TumorGraft” platform.

The “precision chemotherapy” treatment relies on mouse ‘avatars’ — essentially your own personal medical guinea pig — to help oncologists identify the most effective treatment for a specific patient.

“You actually have a ‘mini-me’ with the tumour implanted in mice,” said Schwartz.

By testing various drug cocktails on the rodent, the technique spares the patient from enduring the painful toxic effects of chemotherapies.

Schwartz discovered the technology after her husband’s medical team said he had months to live. Local doctors equated the animal models to “science fiction.” Despite their dismal prognosis, the couple flew to the private company south of the border in a desperate attempt to save Yanov’s life.

The mice tests arrived four months later, suggesting a colon cancer drug called Stivarga. It suppressed Panov’s tumour and kept the cancer at bay.

“If we had stayed in Toronto, the option of using an off-label drug like Stivarga would have never come up,” said Schwartz. “Had he taken the chemo offered in Toronto, he would have died.”

The new lease on life, however, didn’t come cheap.

Both Panov and Schwartz, who live in Thornhill, have paid nearly $350,000 for the treatment so far. Ontario’s medicare bureau, OHIP, refused to reimburse them for the bills for the experimental treatment so the couple sold their home. No matter the financial toll and anguish, both Panov and Schwartz said it was worth it.

“I may not have a house but I have a beautiful husband,” she said.

Further, Panov said the TumorGraft models represent “an opening for a better hope.”

“At the end of the day, if it is money or life, you choose life,” he said. “This technology does exist and, for us, it is a turning point.”

The couple has since made it their personal mission to ensure other Canadians have access to the technology. Along with Schwartz’s medical partner, Dr. Sharla Lichtman, they have fundraised more than $1 million in the past two years for the cause.

Their efforts led to the launch of the Panov Program trial at Mount Sinai Hospital, the first clinical site that has enrolled patients — including Ford — in the newly-opened study.

The research initiative will test just how well Champions’ approach works. It will involve testing chemotherapies on a cancer patient’s mice avatars and then applying those effective treatments to the patient.

The end goal will be to evaluate whether the therapies perform as well on the patients as it did in their mice.

Still, the mice aren’t a proven solution to prolonging life.

First, there are no guarantees that an implanted tumour will grow, although Champions’ track record suggests there is a roughly 65-per-cent chance. There are also cases where patients have died before the whole process — which takes four months — is completed.

“I really hope (Rob) has that time,” said Panov.

In light of his readmission to Mount Sinai’s cancer ward for chemotherapy, Ford’s family launched a website last weekend called GetWellRobFord.com and invited the public to share their stories of cancer survival and support.

Ford’s brother Doug told Torstar News Service the site “really picks up (Rob’s) spirits.”

“He’s very grateful for the outpouring of support he is receiving,” he said.

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