U-M Cancer Center’s Phase 1 clinical trials offer hope for new treatments

The ultimate goal in cancer research is to speed promising therapies from the laboratory to the clinic — where all patients may eventually benefit. That’s at the core of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Ravitz Foundation Phase I/Translational Research Center. An integral part of this this highly innovative program is that it offers new opportunities to patients who have no other treatment options.

Moshe Talpaz, M.D.

Phase I clinical trials are the first step in testing a potential new therapy in people. They focus on determining the right dose and method for delivering a drug. The ultimate question Phase I trials seek to answer is: Can this new drug slow down or stop cancer growth in a dose patients can tolerate?

Patients are monitored very closely to ensure their safety. As cancer research has evolved, drugs have become much less toxic, lowering patients’ risk significantly, said Moshe Talpaz, M.D., associate director of translational research at the U-M Cancer Center.

“Traditionally, when we looked at chemotherapy, we looked at how much we could give a person, assuming that more is better. We know now from Gleevec and other drugs that more is not always better. Now we’re looking for the optimal biologic dose and the biological changes associated with response,” he said. “It probably provides a better chance of benefit than in the past because we have become more systematic in our research.”

The Ravitz Center is unique in that it focuses solely on targeted therapies. In this approach to cancer treatment, researchers try to develop medications that interrupt the signals that cause cancer cells to reproduce.

Because targeted therapies are focused on cancer cells specifically, they tend to cause fewer side effects. Continue reading

U-M and MedImmune join forces to accelerate search for new therapies

Leaders from the University of Michigan Medical School and MedImmune, the global biologics arm of AstraZeneca, have signed a new agreement to work together on a broad range of projects.

Max Wicha, M.D.

Max Wicha, M.D.

The three-year strategic collaboration will bring scientists from one of the nation’s top medical research institutions together with scientists from one of the world’s leading developers of biologic therapies.

“We are thrilled to partner with MedImmune in a collaborative and creative way to bring new innovations to market,” says Steven Kunkel, Ph.D., senior associate dean for research at the U-M Medical School and Endowed Professor of Pathology Research. “This strategic partnership, one of the first of its kind for our institution, speaks to our desire to collaborate with industry to accelerate translation of U-M’s cutting-edge research to impact patients.”

The partnership will initially focus on oncology,  leveraging the strength of the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center. U-M cancer scientists, led by center director Max Wicha, M.D., have won more research grant dollars from the National Cancer Institute than researchers at any other academic medical center.

“Working with MedImmune to explore new ways to target treatments is a natural progression of the basic scientific discoveries that our teams have made in the last decade,” says Wicha, who is also the Distinguished Professor of Oncology in the Department of Internal Medicine at the U-M Medical School.

UMMS and MedImmune scientists will cooperate on studies that aim to translate scientific discoveries from the laboratory into new candidates for treating cancer as well as heart disease, digestive disease, lung disease and diseases caused by inflammation. Continue reading

Liver transplant offers new option for rare cancer

Christopher Sonnenday, M.D., M.H.S.

Robert “Buzz” Gehle thought the itchy rash he was experiencing was a recurrence of an earlier case of shingles. But when his doctor saw he was also jaundiced, he immediately knew there was a problem with Gehle’s liver.

Gehle was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma – cancer in the bile duct – in October 2009, and it soon became clear that traditional surgery would not be an option.

Instead, doctors at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center started Gehle on chemotherapy and radiation and ran him through a series of tests to determine if the 65-year-old was otherwise healthy enough for a possible new treatment – liver transplant.

Liver transplantation is often used for cancer that occurs within the liver. But U-M is one of a small number of centers around the country to offer a transplant for cancer of the bile duct, a long tube-like structure that connects the liver to the intestines.

Bile duct cancer can be extremely difficult to remove surgically, and even when surgery is an option, the cancer frequently comes back.

“This is a tumor we have always struggled with,” says Christopher Sonnenday, M.D., M.H.S., assistant professor of surgery at the U-M Medical School. Sonnenday, a transplant surgeon, is part of the Multidisciplinary Liver Tumor Clinic at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Historically, transplant has not been thought to be a great treatment for cancer. What we’ve learned in recent years is that if you select patients very carefully and find the right patients, those patients can potentially be helped by transplant,” Sonnenday says. Continue reading

U-M doctors discuss major lung cancer screening study

The National Cancer Institute published details yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine about a recent study showing a 20 percent decrease in lung cancer mortality among heavy smokers who were screened with CT scans rather than X-rays. But what does this mean for you? Hear what University of Michigan physicians Ella Kazerooni, M.D., and Douglas Arenberg, M.D., have to say.