Doctors at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) are discovering some treatments that work for one type of cancer may also work for another, if it has similar mutations, or genetic changes.
Genetic changes, or mutations, change some normal cells in the body into cancer cells which can grow and multiply. There are more than 100 types of cancer, which means many different ways to treat cancer are needed. Most cancers are named for the part of the body where they started.
Jeff Clark beat thyroid cancer years ago, but recently discovered the cancer had returned as tumors in his lungs. When cancer metastasizes, or moves to new locations in the body, it is still considered the same type as the original cancer.
He came to HCI, where he is a patient of Sunil Sharma, MD, Senior Director of Clinical Research. It turns out Jeff’s cancer has a genetic mutation that keeps his tumors from responding to the usual treatments for thyroid cancer.
Dr. Sharma explains, “People have tried chemotherapy, but they’re of limited effectiveness. Chemotherapy is very toxic and doesn't work well in this type of cancer.”
So Dr. Sharma took a different approach to Jeff’s treatment. He used a medicine that works by focusing on specific genetic changes in the cancer cells. This type of medicine is called targeted therapy. The targeted therapy Jeff got is often used as a treatment for melanoma, a type of skin cancer. It is also approved for treating thyroid cancer.
“The genetic change in Mr. Clark's thyroid cancer is also present in melanoma,” Dr. Sharma says. “That’s why this targeted therapy is approved for both types of cancer.” He says because these drugs are not as toxic for patients as regular chemotherapy, the situation is a win-win.
Jeff now takes just two pills a day to control the growth of his tumors. The results have been outstanding. Dr. Sharma says, “Jeff's had no growth in his tumors. He's tolerating the medicine well, and he's not had the major side effects of ordinary chemotherapy.”
Jeff says he’s thankful for HCI and Dr. Sharma’s initiative to help him get the treatment he needs. “Without the kind of medical intervention that I've been able to have in my life, I wouldn't be here,” he says.
In the past, it’s been difficult to get patients approved for treatments not related to their specific type of cancer. Dr. Sharma says that’s beginning to change because of genetic research. “If a targeted therapy gets approved for one cancer, we usually have an opportunity to get it approved for other cancers with the same genetic mutations,” he says.
For now, Jeff says he’s living his life, enjoying time with his family, and keeping his sense of humor. He jokes, “I keep telling people I’m a mutant. I mean that's what I've been told. I have a mutation, so I must be a mutant.”
Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit www.huntsmancancer.org.