September 08, 2014
How MD Anderson clinical trials are helping cancer patients
BY Lori Baker
Bringing patients new and better cancer treatments through clinical trials is what sets MD Anderson apart. It's more than a goal or a point of pride. It's a passion. And we offer more cancer trials than anyplace else.
Clinical trials are the key to developing new cancer treatment options. Advances only reach patients by going through clinical trials, which are the final step in a long process to find better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.
"People's health is at stake," says Hagop Kantarjian, M.D., chair of Leukemia. "So trials are conducted only after the procedure or medication has passed many steps that provide confidence it's better than what's available as standard of care. Trials are meticulously designed, reviewed and monitored. Their importance and complexity require expertise and supporting infrastructure, and MD Anderson has no equal in these areas."
Saving lives through clinical trials
Kantarjian personally has conducted 345 clinical trials in his 34 years at MD Anderson. He says he's motivated and inspired by the people he works with, as well as our patients.
"MD Anderson is the best place in the world because of everyone's incredible will to do good by making a difference for so many patients," Kantarjian says.
One of his clinical trials made a life-saving difference to Ken Geihsler.
In December 1999, things weren't looking good for Ken.
"Back then, the treatments for my cancer -- chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) -- didn't work very well," Ken says. "The only option left where I was being treated was a stem cell transplant, and only 20% of people my age survived. Then I read about this magic pill called Gleevec, but it was only being tested in a few places in the country. MD Anderson was one them."
Ken saw Kantarjian and joined the Gleevec clinical trial on a Friday afternoon. He was able to get the pills that evening thanks to extra efforts by Mary Beth Rios, research nurse manager in Leukemia.
"Gleevec saved my life," Ken says. "And when it stopped working for me a few years later, new drugs available through other clinical trials extended my life."
Clinical trials help surgeon do more by doing less
When you learn about the research of Kelly Hunt, M.D., professor in Surgical Oncology, it may sound like she's working herself out of job. She's a breast cancer surgeon whose many successes to date are related to doing less (surgery, that is) for breast cancer patients.
"During my general surgery training just 20 years ago, many women learned they had breast cancer by waking from their biopsy surgery and finding their entire breast removed," recalls Hunt. "I've dedicated much of my career to finding less invasive, yet more effective procedures."
Some breast cancer patients avoid surgeries altogether thanks to Hunt's work. She was part of a study that helped doctors and patients make more informed decisions about removing the unaffected breast as a preventive measure. Now many women feel confident about not having this surgery.
Hunt led another clinical trial that focused on lymph nodes. It showed some patients can safely avoid an additional surgery (complete axillary lymph node dissection), as well as the potential serious side effects of that surgery.
This trial changed the way many patients are treated by doctors everywhere. But Hunt says there's more work to be done.
"We owe our patients more," she says. "Great strides have been made, but much work remains, and it's rewarding to be among so many here who are driven to help patients through clinical trials."
Hope for tomorrow
Margaret Cowart was diagnosed with the rare blood cancer polycythemia vera in 2007. In 2013, the standard drug no longer kept her disease in check. Thankfully, her doctor, Srdan Verstovsek, M.D., Ph.D., professor in Leukemia, had another option.
"I'm so fortunate Dr. Verstovsek and his clinic team were ready to move my treatment to a new option they were investigating," says Margaret. "In the months I've been on the trial, the drug seems to be working better and the side effects are less."
Cowart says she's hopeful for the future and proud to participate in the trial.
"I feel like I'm part of the process to make things better for tomorrow," she concludes.
It's rewarding to be among so many here who are driven to help patients through clinical trials.
Kelly Hunt, M.D.