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Khakoo Gets to the Heart of the Matter

Annual Report - Winter 2011

(From left) Aarif Khakoo, M.D.; Diane Novy, Ph.D.; Sherry Pierce
Photos: Wyatt McSpadden

Growth factor discovery also helps with stress

By Judy Overton

Like a skilled archer, Aarif Khakoo, M.D., zeroes in on his target.

Through his research on cardiotoxicity, Khakoo, assistant professor in the Department of Cardiology, has discovered a growth factor targeted by cancer drugs that also helps the heart deal with stress.

The growth factor, platelet-derived growth factor receptor (PDGFR), is a protein that allows cancer cells to grow uncontrollably. 

Study points out issues

In a study published in January 2010, Khakoo and his colleagues reported that while chemotherapy agents such as Sutent® (sunitinib) and Nexavar® (sorafenib) target and inhibit PDGFR, they also impair the heart’s ability to respond to stress.

Since then, they’ve made another discovery. Sutent appears to weaken the heart muscle by attacking the coronary microvasculature, the blood vessels that supply heart muscle cells.

“Because the cancer drug damages the coronary microvasculature,” he says, “we’re looking at ways to protect the heart’s blood vessel supply while not preventing Sutent’s ability to treat cancer.”

The next step, says Khakoo, is to understand how Sutent damages the blood vessels that supply the heart and figure out ways to prevent it.

Ultimately, his research has a dual purpose: to discover how to prevent cardiotoxicity in cancer therapy and also identify treatments for multiple forms of heart disease within the general population.

Reported in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Award-winning team tackles cancer pain

By Julie Penne

Diane Novy, Ph.D., is a member of MD Anderson’s Pain Management Center’s award-winning team.

In fact, she was the driving force that led the multidisciplinary group through the process of applying for and being honored in 2010 with a Clinical Center of Excellence in Pain Management Award from the American Pain Society.

While the designation alone is noteworthy, it is especially significant because 
MD Anderson’s Pain Management Center is the only pain service at a cancer institution to have received this honor. The other four awardees for the year were broad-based pain services.

Specialists come together for patients

“The differentiating factor for MD Anderson’s team is its practice of bringing together specialists from a range of disciplines to consult with patients and treat pain,” says Novy, professor in the Department of Pain Management.

Like her colleagues, Novy, a psychologist, collaborates daily with pain specialists, anesthesiologists, chaplains, neurologists, psychologists, social workers and physical medicine and rehabilitation practitioners to acknowledge and treat patients’ acute and chronic pain that can result from the cancer itself or the treatment.

The American Pain Society also recognized MD Anderson for its active pain research programs, training programs for residents and fellows, and involvement with state and national pain initiatives.

Pierce an ambassador for Department of Leukemia

By Carol Bryce

Sherry Pierce’s colleagues in the Department of Leukemia tease her about her tendency to boast about their department.

“I really enjoy what I do, and I guess that’s obvious,” the research nurse manager says with a smile.

In it for the long haul

You might not expect such unbridled enthusiasm from someone who’s worked in the same department for 31 of her 33 years at MD Anderson.

But Pierce has found a job that’s a perfect fit, because it lets her combine her nursing skills with her interest in database management and data analysis and interpretation.

“We analyze clinical trial data for patient toxicity and response and follow patients throughout their history,” she explains. 

There's a lot to track

With approximately 125 active treatment protocols at any time, the Department of Leukemia, led by Professor and Chair Hagop Kantarjian, M.D., offers ample data to study.

Encouraging results from two of the studies — using second-line drugs nilotinib and dasatinib for patients with chronic myeloid leukemia — were reported in June 2010 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Pierce also manages two research nurse supervisors, three data supervisors and eight data analysts.

While the native Houstonian marvels at MD Anderson’s growth, she says that when it comes to clinical trials, one thing hasn’t changed.

“We’re always looking for better drugs to treat leukemia.”

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center