February 13, 2020

Advocacy group’s gift boosts lung cancer research efforts

An advocacy group for patients with anaplastic lymphoma kinase positive lung cancer has awarded a $500,000 grant dedicated to overcoming treatment resistance to the cancer.

The ALK positives (group support research for type of lung cancer) gets a tour of several labs at VUMC by Christine Lovly, MD,PhD, BA on February 6, 2020. Lovly’s clinical practice focuses primarily on the care of patients with lung cancer. Photos by Donn Jones

by Tom Wilemon

Christine Lovly, MD, PhD, gave members of ALK Positive, an advocacy group for patients with anaplastic lymphoma kinase positive lung cancer, tours of research labs at Vanderbilt on Thursday, the same day she and another investigator were awarded a $500,000 grant dedicated to overcoming treatment resistance to the cancer.

ALK Positive members raised the funds for the Research Collaboration Grant. Lovly, associate professor of Medicine and co-leader of the Translational Research and Interventional Oncology Research Program at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC), will collaborate with Trever Bivona, MD, PhD, associate professor Hematology and Oncology at the University of California San Francisco, to identify new treatments.

About 4% of non-small cell lung cancer patients are diagnosed ALK+, a form of the disease that often occurs in younger people and that has no known correlation to smoking or environmental toxins.

ALK Positive is a Facebook support group founded in 2015 whose members established an advocacy arm, ALK Positive Outreach Management Group (OMG), to raise research funds and increase awareness about ALK+ lung cancer.

“When we first started the Facebook group there weren’t that many people,” said Gina Hollenbeck, president of ALK Positive OMG. “Now, we’re up to about 1,900 members in 42 countries and five continents.”

Hollenbeck coordinated with Lovly, whose research focuses on targeted therapies for lung cancer, to arrange tours of the lab she leads at VICC, the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Translational Pathology Shared Resource, where research occurs on tissue samples, and the Vanderbilt University High Throughput Screening Facility, where biochemists identify and investigate new compounds for basic research and pharmacological applications.

The 14-member tour group included people with ALK+ lung cancer and their family members, who came from both within and outside of Tennessee for the special visit.

“It is such an honor to partner with the ALK+ patients and Dr. Bivona to try to advance treatment paradigms for ALK+ lung cancer,” Lovly said. “We all have tremendous respect for the ALK+ group, whose members are taking an active role in research and advocacy. To bring meaningful advances in the clinic, we must take a team approach and work together toward a cure.”

The grant will support Lovly and Bivona for the next two years as they and colleagues explore if new combinations of targeted therapies can delay or prevent treatment resistance. Patients with ALK+ lung cancer benefit from current targeted therapy medications, but drug resistance limits those benefits. Most patients develop progressive disease within one to two years of treatment.

“ALK Positive is grateful to GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer for their efforts in coordinating this partnership,” said Hollenbeck. “The fundraising efforts of the ALK Positive members and their supporters have been extraordinary, and we are hopeful this project will make significant strides in accomplishing our mission to ‘improve the life expectancy and quality of life for all ALK+ patients worldwide.’”

The goal that Lovly and Bivona have set is to transform ALK+ lung cancer into a chronic or curable condition by combating drug resistance.

“One of the greatest barriers to surviving lung cancer is treatment resistance,” said Bonnie Addario, co-founder and board chair of the GO2 Foundation. “This grant will help overcome this significant obstacle, give patients hope and help to achieve the goal of making lung cancer a chronically-managed disease. This is an example of how patients, advocates and researchers are putting their heads together to create new, game-changing research.”