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There are many publications and sites that write about cancer. We want you to know we don’t produce the news items you can read in this section, they belong to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. This section only intents to inform you about what is out there.

However, we are working on the first edition of the Pink Ribbon Magazine as well as in the production of featured articles that will be published here.

 

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4 scientists explain what attracted them to cancer drug development

“From the bench to the bedside” is a phrase often used to describe the drug discovery journey from the lab to the clinic.

MD Anderson’s Therapeutics Discovery division, however, takes a different approach, by beginning with the bench at the bedside. This cancer drug discovery engine conducts research that is influenced by patients from the very start.

“We are completely driven by the unmet treatment needs we see in patients who come to MD Anderson for help,” says Phil Jones, Ph.D., vice president of Therapeutics Discovery. “Guided by the expertise of our world-class clinicians, our efforts begin with the patient and their cancer.”

The benefits of an in-house cancer drug discovery model

Composed of three Moon Shots Program™ platforms and the Neurodegeneration Consortium, Therapeutics Discovery is working hard to bring life-saving medicines to patients quickly, safely and effectively. These medicines range from new chemical compounds to antibodies and cell-based therapies.

Unlike typical pharmaceutical companies, Therapeutics Discovery was built here at MD Anderson, reducing the time it takes for a new drug to start benefitting our cancer patients. It’s a recipe for success that is already yielding promising treatment results.

And at the heart of it all are more than 100 scientists, driven by a passion to see their work one day save a patient’s life.

Inventing new ways to treat cancer and help patients

The Institute for Applied Cancer Science (IACS) is devoted to inventing new small-molecule drugs, or chemical compounds, that target specific vulnerabilities in cancer cells.

Mick Soth, Ph.D., is a lead chemist for one of IACS’ drug discovery projects. He’s responsible for designing the safest and most effective compounds possible.

Soth spent more than a decade working for a major pharmaceutical company, but grew increasingly frustrated by limited successes and a lack of meaningful collaborations. He joined MD Anderson five years ago to find a new, more productive environment for drug development. Two of his projects are already advancing to clinical trials. This type of early success, coupled with tremendous cross-communication in the division, is exactly what he was looking for.

But what ultimately makes it all worthwhile?

“The first patient who is actually helped,” Soth says.

Developing new antibodies to fight cancer

The Oncology Research for Biologics and Immunotherapy Translation (ORBIT) platform develops antibodies that recognize specific targets to either seek and destroy cancer cells or stimulate the immune system against a tumor.

Dongxing Zha, Ph.D., associate director of ORBIT, brought decades of research and antibody development experience with him when he joined MD Anderson four years ago. He also brought personal experience, having previously lost his father to gastric cancer.

“Cancer is a horrible, horrible disease that affects almost everyone directly or indirectly,” Zha says. “I really want to contribute and help find new drugs to help those patients who desperately need new therapies.”

In a few short years, his team already has developed two drugs, one that’s now being tested in clinical trials and another soon to be.

“I’m very excited and extremely proud of our team, and it’s only possible at MD Anderson,” says Zha. “We couldn’t deliver this anywhere else.”

Understanding how drugs work and which patients will benefit

Therapeutics Discovery’s Center for Co-Clinical Trials helps our researchers better understand how the drugs that are developed work and who will benefit the most from them.

For Angela Harris, an associate scientist on the in vivo pharmacology team, working at MD Anderson was a “dream job.” The native Houstonian worked for 12 years with a Houston-area pharmaceutical group but jumped at the chance to bring her expertise to MD Anderson four years ago.

Harris conducts preclinical experiments with new therapeutics to learn how safe and effective they might be for treating cancer in humans. The results of her team’s work form the basis for decisions on whether or not to move into clinical trials and which patients should be treated with the new therapies. The clinical trial with Soth’s compound in a subset of lung cancer was influenced by her work.

“That’s what we’re all here for,” she says. “I think we will make a difference in patients’ lives. That’s what motivates me.”

Neurodegeneration Consortium

The Neurodegeneration Consortium is a multi-institutional initiative established in 2012 to better understand diseases that destroy the nervous system and develop new therapies to treat them. The consortium includes researchers from Therapeutics Discovery, Baylor College of Medicine, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Paul Acton came to the Neurodegeneration Consortium with a personal and professional passion to take on Alzheimer’s disease. After watching four family members be diagnosed with or die from the disease, he chose to devote himself to developing new drugs more than 25 years ago.

“It’s definitely something that is real for me and gets me out of bed in the morning,” Acton says.

As a senior research scientist, Acton leads drug discovery efforts for the Neurodegeneration Consortium. While the consortium’s work focuses on Alzheimer’s disease, the drugs developed there may also benefit cancer patients suffering from the  side effects of chemotherapy that negatively affect the nervous system or brain function.

Acton has lost several family members to cancer and has witnessed these side effects personally. Driven by this experience, he’s made it one of his goals to help these patients.

“My hope is to get a drug not just into the clinic, but through the clinic and to the patients to make a difference in their lives.”

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

7 glioblastoma myths

Glioblastoma is the most common and aggressive primary brain tumor in adults. Although it’s considered a rare cancer, with about 12,000 new diagnoses each year, it’s gained increased visibility recently with the diagnoses of a few high-profile people. 

As a neuro-oncologist and the clinical medical director of MD Anderson’s Brain and Spine Center, part of my job is to make sure glioblastoma patients and their families understand this disease and how it will affect them. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned, there are many myths and misconceptions about glioblastoma.

Here’s the truth about seven glioblastoma myths I commonly hear.

1. Myth: Cell phones cause glioblastoma.

Fact: Cell phones don’t cause brain cancer. Several different studies have failed to find clear evidence of a link between cell phone use and brain cancer. The number of people diagnosed with glioblastoma has remained largely stable over the past decade, while cell phone use has continued to increase.

2. Myth: There’s nothing you can do for an “inoperable” glioblastoma.

Fact: A tumor that’s considered “inoperable” at a hospital without specialized brain tumor programs may actually be operable if you seek treatment at a cancer center with the right expertise. Here at MD Anderson, our neurosurgeons successfully operate on many patients who thought their tumors were inoperable. We treat glioblastoma patients every day and have a great deal of experience and expertise in safely removing tumors. This includes glioblastomas involving brain regions responsible for important functions, such as language or movement.

Certain brain tumors that cannot be safely surgically removed may qualify for laser interstitial thermal therapy (LITT). This minimally invasive surgical procedure uses thermal heat to destroy brain tumors from the inside out. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also part of the standard-of-care treatment for glioblastoma.

3. Myth: Glioblastoma can be completely removed by surgery.

Fact: Even a successful gross total resection for glioblastoma always leaves behind microscopic disease. Glioblastoma has “tentacles” that reach out from the main tumor mass. These tentacles are invisible to the naked eye and even to many of our most advanced imaging technologies. A gross total resection of a brain tumor is defined as removing at least 98% or more of the contrast-enhancing tumor, which is the part of the tumor that we can see on the MRI scan when the patient is given contrast dye through an IV. An MD Anderson analysis showed that glioblastoma patients who have a gross total resection tend to live longer. However, invisible cells of cancer are always left behind in the brain after surgery. That’s why the standard-of-care treatment for glioblastoma includes chemotherapy and radiation, even after an excellent surgical resection.  

4. Myth: Radiation therapy is the same for any brain tumor. 

Fact: Most patients undergoing radiation therapy for glioblastoma receive photon-based radiation therapy, such as intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT). IMRT uses multiple X-ray beams made of photons at different angles to treat the area where the tumor was removed and any tumor left behind, even if it’s just microscopic disease. Radiation is carefully planned and targeted to protect the healthy, normal brain.

Patients with other types of brain tumors or who require radiation to both their brain and spine may receive a different type of radiation therapy, including proton therapy. To date, proton therapy has not been shown to be more effective than the standard photon-based radiation for glioblastoma. Multiple ongoing clinical trials are investigating and further defining the role of proton radiation in brain tumors.    

5. Myth: The ketogenic diet can cure glioblastoma.

Fact: No diet can cure glioblastoma. A handful of case studies and internet bloggers have claimed the keto diet may have benefits for brain cancer patients, but the idea that you can “starve” glioblastoma through diet is a myth. While the role of diet in cancer is an area of active research, we know that glioblastoma patients need nutrients – including carbohydrates – to keep their bodies strong through treatment. We recommend a balanced diet based on the New American Plate guidelines developed by the American Institute for Cancer Research.

6. Myth: Having glioblastoma means your family is at increased risk for developing a brain tumor.

Fact: Glioblastoma is a brain tumor that almost always develops sporadically. Being diagnosed with glioblastoma does not mean your children or siblings are more likely to develop glioblastoma or another brain tumor. Some very rare cancer syndromes, such as Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, are associated with an increased risk for developing brain tumors and other cancers, but these patients usually are diagnosed with multiple types of cancer at a very young age. 

BRCA mutations are associated with an increased risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer, but there is no known association between BRCA mutations and glioblastoma development. A few ongoing genetic studies are looking at families that have multiple relatives with brain tumors to better understand if certain inherited genes contribute to brain tumor development.

7. Myth: Chemotherapy always makes your hair fall out.

Fact: The most commonly used chemotherapy for glioblastoma is called temozolomide (TMZ), and hair loss isn’t typically one of the side effects of this chemotherapy. However, treating glioblastoma with radiation therapy to the brain can cause hair loss around the part of the head where the radiation beam enters. After radiation is complete, the hair almost always grows back.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

Stage IV salivary gland cancer survivor: How proton therapy saved my career

It’s difficult to say that someone is “the best” at something, especially when it comes to sports. How do you determine the No. 1 golfer? Since it’s based on performance, it might be one person this week, and a different one the next.

But when it comes to cancer treatment, I think there’s a clear leader: MD Anderson. I’d always heard it was the No. 1 cancer treatment center in the world. But I don’t think I really understood what that meant until I was diagnosed with stage IV salivary gland cancer in August 2015.

My salivary gland cancer diagnosis

I discovered I had cancer after going to my dermatologist about a little bump on my neck. It was just below my left ear, and I thought it was a swollen lymph node caused by a sinus infection.

But antibiotics didn’t shrink it, and my dermatologist didn’t like the look of it, so he sent me to a local head and neck specialist. That doctor ordered an MRI, which revealed a two-inch tumor on my parotid gland. It was wrapped around a major nerve that controls the facial muscles. I had stage IV mucoepidermoid carcinoma, a very rare type of salivary gland cancer.

How I came to MD Anderson

I was beyond fear when I got that news. A quick internet search showed the survival rates for my type of cancer were staggeringly bad. And mine was far enough advanced that even my specialist said I needed to go to a bigger cancer center for proper treatment. He referred me to a facility in Chicago, where I grew up. I had surgery there to remove the tumor and some nearby lymph nodes.

The procedure was complex, and I knew it might not be possible to get all the cancer out. So I asked my surgeon to focus more on preserving my sensory functions than on removing the cancer completely. As a person who watches other people play golf and talks about it on TV for a living, it’s pretty critical for me to be able to speak and hear.

The surgeon did a great job. But he said it was like trying to remove a meatball from the bottom of a bowl of spaghetti, without damaging any of the noodles. Some remnants of the cancer had almost certainly been left behind. He said I needed proton therapy to kill it. Unfortunately, his facility didn’t offer that treatment. So, I went to the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center.

Why I decided to have proton therapy

At MD Anderson, I met first with oncologist Dr. Charles Lu, radiation oncologist Dr. Steven Frank and surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Gershenwald to discuss my options. They said that chemotherapy may or may not be effective against my cancer, so I didn’t pursue that. Radiation therapy might’ve worked, too, but it may have prevented me from chewing my food normally, much less talking on live TV.

We all agreed that proton therapy was the best option. I had 31 treatments over a six-week period. I haven’t had any problems with eating, speaking or swallowing since. And my dry mouth issues are so minor, I’m almost embarrassed to mention them.

Why I’m proud to be a part of the MD Anderson team

Treating cancer is a lot like playing golf, in that there are two stages to it: the planning and the execution. But whereas golf is an individual sport, cancer requires a team. Once I saw how good my MD Anderson team was at planning my treatment, I knew that their execution was going to be equally as good. So, it’s no surprise that the care I received was second to none.

I’m now approaching my third anniversary of being cancer-free. And not a day goes by that I don’t think about that. But every day is an anniversary for me. Just getting up in the morning and realizing the second chance I’ve been given makes me appreciate life all the more.

I’m convinced the reason I’m still here is because of MD Anderson’s team approach. Seeing first-hand how well its doctors work together gives me a sense of pride — not just to be a cancer survivor, but to be a part of the team that’s Making Cancer History®.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

How unexpected results can lead cancer research and treatment in new directions

Our Pedro Ramirez, M.D., caused a stir at the Society of Gynecologic Oncology’s annual meeting in March when he reported unexpected findings in his Phase III study comparing minimally invasive surgery to open surgery for early-stage cervical cancer.

The trial had stopped signing up new patients early, because patients who underwent minimally invasive laparoscopic or robotic surgery for hysterectomy — rather than having open surgery — were nearly four times as likely to experience a cancer recurrence. Their mortality rates were higher, too, so it wasn’t safe to continue.

“We were very surprised,” says Ramirez, noting that the finding contradicted prior data.

Although the number of patients affected in the study was small (27 recurrences in 319 patients), the evidence was absolute. Two other studies, including one from MD Anderson, evaluating large national databases came to the same conclusion.

“Hopefully, the gynecologic oncology community will accept the results of these three studies and stop doing the minimally invasive procedure for cervical cancer,” Ramirez says. “Physicians have a responsibility to discuss with their patients the need for open surgery.”

Navigating the unexpected

It’s rare – but not unheard of – for a clinical study to uncover an unexpected truth, says George Wilding, M.D., vice president for clinical and interdisciplinary research.

He recalls when immunotherapy studies appeared to show that cancer was growing instead of shrinking.

“The tumor is infiltrated by immune cells, making it appear as if it’s getting bigger,” he explains.

With continued scientific research, immunologists like Jim Allison, Ph.D., ultimately unlocked secrets of the immune system, bringing cancer treatments such as checkpoint inhibitors and T-cell engineering into the mainstream.

“We’re all aware of the magazine covers that say something is the next best thing, and then it doesn’t turn out and we’re all disappointed again,” Wilding says of unexpected findings in general. “But, in immunotherapy, these are particularly exciting times. There are whole new classes of treatments and approaches that are showing really exciting results.”

Not all studies created the same

For Jennifer McQuade, M.D., the surprise was a counterintuitive finding in 2018 that linked obesity with improved survival rates in men with metastatic melanoma.

“We know obesity increases the risk of getting many cancers and is associated with worse survival in many cancers,” she says.

So there were reasons to think – based on the same biologic pathways – metastatic melanoma would be the same, says McQuade.

That’s why she had difficulty believing the initial study findings.

“At first, I had blinders on and totally missed the obesity paradox,” she says, describing the study’s contradiction to established evidence linking obesity to mortality risk.

She proceeded carefully and looked at five other groups before concluding that obese males on targeted therapy were more than twice as likely to survive metastatic melanoma at two years compared with normal-weight males.

There were similar results for obese males on immunotherapy, but not on chemotherapy – and not at all for females.

“The disappointment was that I’m a strong believer in a healthy diet and exercise,” says McQuade. “I went into this study looking for evidence to support that cancer patients may be able to influence their outcomes by controlling their weight.”

Instead, now we are examining the biological basis for this obesity paradox.

“One of the biggest things this study demonstrates is the importance of asking the question correctly,” she says. “If you don’t design the experiment well, and you get unexpected results, you don’t know if those results are correct or if you just didn’t ask the question correctly.”

Indeed, as Wilding says, when it comes to scientific research, the unexpected often begets something even more important and exciting.

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

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