June 27, 2008

Vanderbilt shines at national cancer meet

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Vanderbilt shines at national cancer meet

David Johnson, M.D., deputy director of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, is starring in a new role for the cancer community.

Johnson's photo is featured in ads for a new national advocacy campaign by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

The ad, which was unveiled during the annual ASCO convention in Chicago this month, calls on the federal government to increase research funding for cancer.

“At the same time we are finally starting to make strides in curing some forms of cancer, the federal government has put a lid on our research dollars,” said Johnson, who is not only a cancer researcher but also a cancer survivor. “The budgets for the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute have been flat for five years. With inflation, that means we're actually losing money that is crucial for cancer research.”

ASCO ran the first ad in USA Today and plans to place it in additional print and online outlets this summer.

Johnson was one of several Vanderbilt-Ingram researchers who played prominent roles during the ASCO conference. More than a dozen researchers were invited to give oral presentations, moderate panel discussions or give poster presentations of their latest research findings.

While there were few blockbuster cancer revelations from the world's best researchers at this year's ASCO conference, there were some tantalizing clues about how to refine treatment regimens, especially for women with specific types of breast cancer.

For postmenopausal women with estrogen receptor positive (ER+) metastatic breast cancer, new research suggests that the drug gefitinib, which is an EGFR inhibitor, adds to the effectiveness of the drug anastrozole.

Another paper suggested that combining the drug trastuzumab (Herceptin) with the drug lapatinib after breast cancer has progressed is better than continuation of trastuzumab alone in women with metastatic HER2 positive breast cancer.

Carlos L. Arteaga, M.D., director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Breast Cancer Research Program, who delivered two of his own oral presentations, said those two studies by other researchers may lead breast cancer investigators in new directions.

Some colorectal cancer patients may see their treatment regimens changed because of other research unveiled during ASCO.

Jordan Berlin, M.D., clinical director of the Gastrointestinal Oncology Program, said the new findings reinforce research done at Vanderbilt-Ingram.

“In our trials we had shown that patients with a mutated K-ras gene did not benefit from the drug panitumumab. Now, three large trials have confirmed that patients with a mutated K-ras gene do not benefit from this antibody therapy and, when combined with the drugs oxaliplatin and bevacizumab, the therapy may be harmful. Based on this new research physicians will be less likely to ask patients with K-ras mutations to undergo treatments that we know won't be beneficial.”

K-ras gene status also was determined to be significant in decisions about how to treat lung cancer patients. Once again, those with the mutated gene may not benefit from some therapies.

Lung cancer was the focus of a prominent study known as the FLEX clinical trial. Scientists found a small but statistically significant increase in survival when lung cancer patients were given the drug cetuximab, known commercially as Erbitux.

“There was only a five-week increase in survival, but in advanced lung cancer, which has such a poor prognosis, even a few weeks can make a huge difference to patients,” said Johnson.