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North Hills Monthly

SPORE Grant to Fund Trials for Treating Ovarian Cancer

Jul 01, 2014 12:57PM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen
When it comes to female-specific diseases, ovarian cancer is one of the deadliest. When ovarian cancer is detected early, the survival rate is 85-90 percent. Sadly, most women are diagnosed when the disease has already advanced. Chemotherapy efforts usually help at first, but the cancer often comes back. In fact, more than 14,000 women across the country, including 800 from Pennsylvania, died from ovarian cancer in 2013.

In their mission to help more women survive ovarian cancer, the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI) has partnered with UPMC CancerCenter and Roswell Park Cancer Institute (RPCI) to better understand the disease and find ways to prevent and cure it. Funding for this research comes from a five-year, $11 million grant from the National Cancer Institute’s Specialized Program of Research Excellence, or SPORE, and includes three clinical trials which evaluate recently developed immunotherapies and an epidemiological study targeted at high-risk women.

Dr. Robert Edwards of Hampton Township is the executive vice-chair of gynecologic services and director of the Ovarian Cancer Center for Excellence at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, and he and research collaborators, Drs. Anda Vlad and Pawel Kalinski, have been conducting clinical trials using a new cancer vaccine that utilizes a woman’s own immunity to stop malignant tumors from recurring after chemotherapy. These trials are taking place in a variety of locations, including UPMC CancerCenter at UPMC Passavant and Magee. “Ovarian cancer responds to chemotherapy extremely well initially, but tends to recur in 85 percent of cases, usually one to two years after chemotherapy is done,” he explained, adding that his research strongly suggests that when combined with immunization, chemotherapy can be much more successful at beating the disease. “In the past, we’ve not used vaccines at the same time as chemotherapy, thinking the chemo would block the vaccine. Now it turns out that the vaccine may help chemo to work better.”

Dr. Edwards’ ovarian cancer clinical trial has been investigating how chronic inflammation can play a part in cancer development and how the body’s immune response can be used to enable patients to fight their own cancers. In fact, the HPV prophylactic vaccine can actually prevent certain female cancers. Immunotherapy enables patients to literally save their own lives, but Dr. Edwards says that only 30 percent of eligible women are going the immunization route. “There‘s been a stigma against cancer vaccines,” he acknowledged, noting that HPV vaccines have been preventing cervical cancers since 2005.

Using a woman’s own immune cells to target and kill the tumor cells that survive chemotherapy, Dr. Edwards is intent on saving lives now and in the future. He encourages anyone suffering from ovarian cancer to take part in what he says are some of the most cutting-edge ovarian cancer clinical trials available. “Patients come from my office and sometimes from very far away for the trials offered at UPMC Cancer Center at UPMC Passavant,” he said.

Clinical trials are an important tool for researchers, according to Dr. Edwards, who added that his mother and son both had cancer and ended up in clinical trials. “The staff and research nurses keep a good eye on you, and there is a continuity of care while patients are on the research trial that makes them feel better. And this is how we (doctors and researchers) get better at what we do.”

As an example, the odds of developing endometriosis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the uterus, are a whopping one in 10, and a small percentage of those women will develop ovarian cancer. Up until now, there was no way to assess which patients might develop the disease, but Dr. Edwards’ group recently identified a pathway in patients with endometriosis and endometriosis-associated ovarian cancer that might be an indicator of a women’s risk of developing ovarian cancer. This knowledge will surely improve outcomes and save lives.

Studies are focused on different stages of the disease, explains the doctor, noting that when a patient presents with ovarian cancer and is offered the trial, they are advised to talk it over with family members or study the information online before deciding to start treatment.

Dr. Edwards acknowledges the fact that prevention is best, but the local population seems to be resistant to making the appropriate lifestyle changes. “The lion’s share of current cancers comes from our Western lifestyle, diet and smoking habits,” he said, noting that even though the smoking rate has dropped, obesity rates have risen. “And there’s a big problem with cancer prevention in western Pennsylvania. Colon, ovarian and uterine cancers have predisposing factors that appear to be getting worse. However, we do have ways to help individuals find out their personal risk, and it almost goes without saying that physical activity and a healthy diet will promote the immune system.”