Treating lung cancer: Trials aim to extend remission

Beaufort Memorial Hospital is taking part in two national tests of a new drug that could help prevent the growth of tumors.

March 22, 2011 

  • To learn more about the two lung cancer clinical trials of the drug Sunitinib going on now at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, call the Keyserling Cancer Center Research Office at 843-522-7819.

One of the country's experts on lung cancer met with Beaufort Memorial Hospital physicians and staff this month to update them on the newest therapies to treat the deadly disease.

Dr. Jeffrey Crawford, chief of medical oncology and principal investigator for clinical trials at Duke University Medical Center, presented the most recent data on drugs being used to try to extend the length of remission of advanced lung cancer patients.

As an affiliate of Duke Medicine, Beaufort Memorial recently qualified to join two national clinical trials studying Sunitinib, a promising anti-cancer agent. The oral medication is given to advanced lung cancer patients following standard chemotherapy treatments to inhibit the vascular endothelial growth factors that stimulate the tumors.

"We use chemotherapy to get the cancer under control," said Crawford, vice chairman of the respiratory cancer committee for the Cancer and Leukemia Group B, one of 10 major associations conducting studies sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. "But after about two to four months, the tumor will begin growing again."

Sunitinib has been used on other types of cancers, including kidney cancer, with good results. It is now being tested on lung cancer.

Unlike chemotherapy drugs that attack healthy as well as cancerous cells, Sunitinib targets individual cells and is meant to maintain or enhance the effect of the chemo.

Sunitinib also is generally better tolerated by patients, resulting in milder side effects than the toxic chemotherapy drugs.

"If you can live a year, rather than eight months, that's big, especially if we can improve your quality of life," Crawford said. "Every month counts."

Only 20 percent to 25 percent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer catch it early enough to be a candidate for surgery, leaving chemotherapy as the only option.

"We don't have good screening programs for lung cancer, and there are no early warning signs," Crawford said. "By the time a patient shows symptoms, such as coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain, the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other distant sites."

Approximately 86 percent of lung cancer patients die within five years. The most recent figures from the American Cancer Society estimated 157,300 deaths from lung cancer in the United States in 2010.

Now in their third phase of trials, the two targeted therapy studies are open to patients with small cell lung cancer -- a particularly aggressive tumor almost always caused by cigarette smoking -- and advanced stage 3B or 4 non-small cell lung cancer, the most common form of lung cancer.

Patients must meet other eligibility requirements to qualify for the clinical trials.

"This is cutting-edge medicine," said Beaufort Memorial oncologist Dr. Majd Chahin, principal investigator for Beaufort Memorial's clinical trials program. "We're offering our patients the opportunity to receive treatment that could prove to be better than the current standard of care."

Beaufort Memorial was recently audited by the Cancer and Leukemia Group B association to ensure the hospital is meeting all regulatory, pharmaceutical and patient care standards. It is Beaufort Memorial's first audit since joining the clinical trials program more than three years ago.

"They were rated acceptable in all three categories," Crawford said. "That's not that common, especially with hospitals undergoing their first audit. For patients, it means they can rest assured they are receiving the highest quality of care."

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