An article from the Fall 2012 issue of MyGeorgetownMD.
First, the good news: Advances in detection and treatment over the years have produced an increased cure rate for some cancers and extended survival for others, most notably for breast and prostate.
Just 40 years ago, a patient with a cancer diagnosis had few options and little hope. Today, there are close to 12 million survivors.
However, cure rates and extended survival are more problematic for patients with colon and pancreatic cancers. Approximately 60 percent of all colon cancer patients have a fighting chance against their disease; for patients with pancreatic cancer, survival rates plummet to 2 percent or less. A leading culprit is the number of variations in individual tumors. In colorectal cancer alone, researchers have identified more than 50 different mutations that can dictate how well a tumor responds to treatment. Complicating matters, digestive tumors can quickly develop a tolerance to today’s chemotherapies. Yet without other alternatives, we still apply the same treatments for everyone and hope for the best.
So the question becomes, how do we fight a smarter war against cancer?
At the Otto J. Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal (GI) Cancers, we believe the answer lies in individualized curative therapies or personalized medicine. Through a combination of advanced science, clinical studies and a patient-centered approach, we’re tackling the problem along the continuum, from the laboratory bench to the bedside (known as “translational research”).
Take colon cancer, for example. In a current study, we analyze various tumor mutations in the lab to discover which pathways they follow to grow; then we test how well different drugs or combinations block each mutation’s progress. Next, we apply the new approach to patients with the same mutations to get real-life results.
Altogether, the Ruesch Center currently has 31 studies of various GI cancers underway examining new drugs, older drugs in novel combinations, chemotherapy/ radiation therapies and other potential strategies to defeat or control cancer. See Page One for a story about how MedStar Georgetown specialists treated Charlotte Robinson’s pancreatic cancer.
A large part of the research equation, however, depends on patient involvement. We need patients to partner with us to find the very best therapies for their unique condition. Yet fewer than 5 percent of cancer patients nationwide participate in clinical trials, which slows the accumulation of data. As a result, the trip from “test tube” to “tried and true” takes about 17 years in the United States today.
Our mission is to shorten that time frame, so more people can benefit more quickly from new knowledge and discovery.
Toward that end, this winter’s Third Annual Ruesch Symposium seeks to demystify the research process and encourage more people to become partners in the battle. From donating an extra blood or tissue sample to trying a brand new drug, every patient who participates in a clinical trial helps take us one step closer to improving cancer care. Moreover, those in the test group might have a good response to the new agent, improving their survival or quality of life.
By convening key representatives, the Ruesch Symposium strives to change the outlook for GI cancer patients today and tomorrow. Symposium participants include representatives from diverse areas:
- Academia and research
- Pharmaceutical and insurance companies
- Public policy
- Patient advocacy
- General public
Together we can develop new therapies and provide new hope to people who have cancer.