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UNM clinical trial offers hope to women with ovarian cancer

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Ovarian cancer is tough to diagnose, and even multiple treatments with chemotherapy too often fail to provide long-term survival for women with the disease.

A new treatment now in clinical trials at the University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is intended to train the body’s own immune system to recognize ovarian tumors and attack them – an effect called a “memory response.”

“The goal of the immunotherapy is to induce a memory response,” said Dr. Sarah Adams, who is leading the clinical trial. “One of the most exciting things about immunotherapy is the idea that we could teach the immune system to recognize cancer and prevent cancer recurrence.”

The eight women now enrolled in Adams’ clinical trial all have had previous battles with ovarian cancer.

“This trial is for people who have recurrent disease,” said Adams, a UNM professor of gynecologic oncology. “Many of them have had multiple courses of chemotherapy in the past.”

Ovarian cancer is among the deadliest forms of cancer. Only 45 percent of women survive for five years after diagnosis. The disease kills about 14,000 women each year in the United States, making it the nation’s fifth-leading cause of cancer death in women.

In New Mexico, ovarian cancer kills nearly 100 women a year and accounts for about 6 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the New Mexico Tumor Registry.

Adams’ study uses two drugs, both of which have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for stand-alone use, but not in combination.

Adams and her team have shown the effectiveness of the two-drug combination in studies with mice. That work led the FDA to approve the treatment last year for clinical trials in humans.

The laboratory studies showed that mice treated with the two drugs “developed evidence of immune memory, which means that when their immune cells were exposed to a tumor a second time, they eliminated the tumor,” she said.

The study is open to women with BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, which are genetic mutations associated with a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancers. Genetic testing can determine if someone has a BRCA mutation.

One drug is a manufactured antibody intended to stimulate the immune system to attack tumors. It does so by helping specialized immune cells, called T-cells, to recognize and destroy cancerous cells.

The other drug, called a PARP inhibitor, acts against tumors in people with BRCA mutations by preventing a cancerous cell from repairing itself. PARP is a protein that allows a BRCA-mutated cell to repair its own DNA. Inhibiting the PARP protein can kill the cell.

The need is clear for effective new treatments for ovarian cancer. The five-year survival rate for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer “hasn’t changed much over the last couple decades,” Adams said. “It’s really frustrating.”

Improving the survival rate is difficult because women typically aren’t diagnosed until after the cancer has spread through the body. Researchers lack a screening tool that can catch the cancer at an early stage.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer “are very vague,” Adams said. They can include abdominal bloating, changes in bladder or bowel habits, and abdominal pain, all common to other conditions.

“By the time people have these symptoms, they’ve already got metastatic disease,” she said.

For more information about the clinical trial, call the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center at 272-4946.

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