Reprogramming Cancer Cells

On Friday night, CBS and the other major networks were joining forces once again to bring you Stand Up To Cancer -- a program designed to raise awareness of the disease and raise money to fight it.

The $100 million donated in 2008 is already at work. It's being used to put together dream teams of doctors -- the best minds from institutions that normally compete against each other are instead working together on cutting-edge research.

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Jerry Morton, 59, dreamed of spending time with his grandson after a career fighting fires - then lung cancer hit. His doctor told him the cancer had spread to his liver.

Morton asked his doctor, "'How many years do I have to live?' And he said I wouldn't think years. I would be thinking months."

After three rounds of chemotherapy failed, Morton signed up for an experimental treatment at Johns Hopkins,the first to use something called "Epigenetic Therapies"to treat lung cancer.

Information about Clinical Trials

CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports the epigenome is a system that influences how your genome behaves. It acts as a light switch that turns genes on or off. In cases of lung cancer, the hope is that an epigenetic drug can activate a gene that switches off that tumor.

"It is an explosion in science, and so relevant to cancer," said Dr. Peter Jones of USC. They believe that reprogramming rather than poisoning cells will be less toxic to patients.

"What evidence do you have that this treatment is working?" LaPook asked.

Pointing to a scan, Baylin replied, "he has a big mass in here in his lung that's gone 18 months after he started the treatment. He has a big hole in his liver that's also gone."

Jerry Morton's response was dramatic, but this research is just beginning. In a small trial, about 30 percent of patients had some real benefit.

"There's nothing growing. I'm looking good. Feeling good, starting to get back to normal," Morton said.

Where does this stand? "Huge hope and excitement with caution - that's where we are," Baylin said.

Morton's grandson Tommy, 12, is just beginning to understand epigenetics and cancer.

"You're not killing the cancer cells, you're taking them, fiddling around with them, and you're turning them into a cell that's more normal - with a lot less collateral damage," Dr. LaPook said to Tommy. "Make sense?"

What the family knows for sure is there's more time now with grandpa.

"I don't think dying scared me as much as the leaving - leaving my wife especially. We'd been married 41 years," Morton said. "My kids, my grandson. I don't want to leave them yet. Not ready to give it up."

The research team isn't giving up yet either. It's now expanding trials to include breast and colon cancer.

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  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook