Precision Medicine Helps One Woman Beat the Odds

Genetic testing can lead pancreatic cancer patients to the study of tailored treatment.

July 28, 2015

Genetic testing can lead pancreatic cancer patients to  the study of tailored treatment


(Washington, D.C.) July 28, 2015 – Susan didn’t have time for pancreatic cancer. Business trips to Asia and sailing adventures in the Mediterranean plus an active family added up to a busy life.

Pancreatic Cancer Patient

Last year after returning from one of her trips to India, Susan sought medical treatment for some gastrointestinal problems. She was shocked when tests revealed pancreatic cancer which turned out to be inoperable.

“I just cried,” said Susan, 64.  “Pancreatic cancer is traditionally a death sentence and mine had spread to my liver and lungs.  I did some reading and discovered that I was facing some very tough odds so I needed to seek out some non-standard treatment options.  In my case, that meant a clinical trial.”

“Susan had genetic testing conducted on her tumor which revealed a key gene mutation.  Because of that finding she was able to enroll in a clinical trial studying a treatment tailored to her tumor type,” said Michael Pishvaian, MD, PhD, Susan’s oncologist who specializes in gastrointestinal cancers at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

In June 2014 Susan began the experimental treatment regimen which consisted of an FDA-approved pancreatic cancer chemotherapy every other week.  During the week of her chemo treatments she would also take the drug being studied, called a PARP inhibitor, for seven days. PARP inhibitors diminish the ability of cancer cells to fix the damage caused by chemotherapy.

“The pill Susan has been taking inhibits the cancer DNA from repairing itself and coming back,” said Dr. Pishvaian, the study’s principal investigator.  ”By December 2014 all of her cancerous lesions were shrinking and by March 2015 all of her cancer had disappeared.”

Dr. Pishvaian says there are some serious side effects from the treatment regimen that can be managed with medication.

“In nine months all signs of my cancer were gone,” said Susan. “I didn’t expect them ever to say ‘there’s no evidence of cancer.’ It’s just amazing.  I was shocked, surprised and extremely happy.”

Pancreatic Cancer survivor

“We now know that cancer is like snowflakes,” said John Marshall, MD, chief, Hematology/Oncology at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and director of Georgetown Lombardi’s The Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers. “All cancers are different. Now we are starting to be able to measure their variability and tailor the treatments to the makeup of the tumor. But only a minority of patients benefit from precision medicine.  It requires a haystack big enough to find all the right needles. That’s why we are studying our use of genetic testing.  Instead of just saying it’s the right thing to do, we need to show it.”

MedStar Georgetown and a number of other U.S. cancer centers are partnering with Texas-based Caris Life Sciences as part of the Caris Centers of Excellence for Precision Medicine Network  to not only conduct tumor profiling but also to develop guidelines and best practices to improve patient outcomes and access to personalized medicine in the area of oncology. 

“Intellectually we know we need to collaborate with other cancer centers to demonstrate in the next year or two that precision medicine is what’s best for our patients,” said Dr. Marshall, medical director of the Caris network. “Working with Caris to study this will help us to prove the worth of personalized medicine.”

Susan says she has no doubt that she has benefitted from the evolving science of personalized or precision medicine. Knowing her particular cancer’s molecular makeup allowed Dr. Pishvaian to offer her participation in a clinical trial tailored to her tumor.

“While not all patients will have the same outcome, Susan’s case is remarkable,” said Dr. Pishvaian.

“I know I’m here today because I entered this study. I am grateful to be alive and that there was a clinical trial that was right for me,” said Susan. “I take it day by day, one moment at a time. I am happy, healthy and I plan to be here tomorrow.”


Learn more - watch NBC4 Washington's Curing Cancer: A News4 Special Report

Abbott Laboratories provides the investigational study drug and additional research funding. Dr. Pishvaian reports having no personal financial interests related to the study.


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