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Targeting Cancer: Ovarian cancer clinical trials providing new hope to patients

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LeeAnna Shreve is happiest surrounded by family. That’s evident by the dozens of family photos that fill the walls of her Eugene home.

It was her family that LeeAnna leaned on when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016.

“I was surprised, because cancer was the farthest thing from my mind. I just thought I was having menopausal issues,” she says.

According to estimates from the American Cancer Society, more than 22,000 women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year.

“The reason ovarian cancer has been so difficult to treat is because it presents in advanced stage, most commonly in stage 3 or stage 4, meaning it has spread out of the ovary and pelvis into the upper abdomen,” says gynecologic oncologist Dr. Charles Anderson.

Hope in research

Willamette Valley Cancer Institute and Research Center (WVCI) is currently involved in six clinical trials to treat newly diagnosed and recurrent cases of ovarian cancer. The trials are studying several different types of novel drugs, including immunotherapy.

“The majority of ovarian cancers are sensitive to therapy initially. The problem is that they are genetically unstable, they like to recur and gain resistance, so the idea is to use the body’s complex immune system to keep the cancer away long term,” says Dr. Anderson, who was instrumental in bringing these clinical trials to WVCI.

Targeting cancer cells with PARP inhibitors

LeeAnna is participating in a trial that studies another type of drug called PARP inhibitors, a targeted therapy that blocks specific enzymes that help cancer cells survive.

PARP inhibitors fight cancers caused by mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which account for about 20 to 25-percent of hereditary breast cancers and 15-percent of ovarian cancers. These drugs have also been shown to be effective in treating somatic mutations, those that reside inside the tumor and may not be genetically inherited.

While LeeAnna’s clinical trial is randomized, meaning neither she nor Dr. Anderson know if she’s receiving the study drug, she has realized positive changes.

“First of all, it’s not growing and some if it seems to still be shrinking. I told him, I’m happy with stable. I’ll take that,” LeeAnna says.

Looking ahead

There haven’t been many breakthroughs in ovarian cancer therapies in the last 20-30 years, when compared to other cancers; but that could change with these clinical trials.

“We have finally found some chinks in the armor. It gives us a glimmer of hope that we will be able to keep these cancers away longer,” Dr. Anderson says.

Because of its affiliation with The US Oncology Network, WVCI offers patients access to one of the nation’s largest research networks.

“These are national and global trials that we’re able to bring to the community,” says Dr. Anderson. “Historically, patients who wanted to receive therapies like this had to travel to Seattle, San Francisco or Portland. Now, they’re able to sleep in their own bed at night and receive the same study drugs and research protocols, without having to leave town.”

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