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New treatment hits the target

Dr. Ehab Atallah and Joan Hubbard view Joan’s website and her jewelry creations. Through the success of a new targeted therapy, Joan was able to resume her jewelry-making business.

Dr. Ehab Atallah and Joan Hubbard view Joan’s website and her jewelry creations. Through the success of a new targeted therapy, Joan was able to resume her jewelry-making business.

A new understanding of cancer as a genetic disease, in which individual gene mutations drive cancer cell growth, is giving rise to a new type of treatment that holds great promise for cancer care. New targeted therapies focus on specific genetic abnormalities in individual patients and block signals needed for cancer cells to grow. The Medical College of Wisconsin’s Cancer Center offers more than 135  active clinical trials, the most cancer   trials in the area, giving cancer patients access to the newest, most advanced treatments, including targeted therapies.     

A new cancer treatment that targets a genetic abnormality is giving life back to Joan Hubbard.

The treatment represents a new class of drugs, known as targeted therapies, which are reshaping the future of care for cancer and other conditions. Targeted therapies tailor treatment to a specific gene mutation underlying a patient’s disease and offer the potential to be more effective than traditional therapies. “Targeted drugs are the best development that’s happened in cancer care in the last 50 years,” said Medical College cancer specialist Ehab Atallah, MD, who is Joan’s physician.

Joan is a retired art teacher and metalsmith. She now works with precious metals and gems in her Menomonee Falls studio to create high-end jewelry, which she sells through her website. But for many years, pursuing her art was unthinkable.  

In 1985, Joan was diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia, a rare and slow growing form of blood cancer marked by uncontrolled growth of platelets in the blood. After her husband died of cancer in 2002, Joan’s condition worsened. She was referred to Medical College cancer specialists at the Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center who found that her cancer had developed into myelofibrosis, a disorder in which the bone marrow is scarred and unable to produce blood cells. In myelofibrosis, the spleen takes over blood cell production and becomes greatly enlarged, which compresses the stomach and limits food intake.

Previously, there was no effective treatment available for myelofibrosis. Patients would deteriorate from debilitating weight loss, fatigue and pain.

Advances in genetic research, however, have identified a specific mutation in a gene, known as the Janus kinase 2 gene (JAK2), linked to myelofibrosis. Following this discovery, the first drug to treat myelofibrosis was designed to block the action of the abnormal JAK2 gene. In December 2009, the drug was made available through a clinical trial at the Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin Clinical Cancer Center and a number of other institutions around the country.

Joan enrolled immediately in the trial, thankful that she could stay at home for the duration of the three-year trial. At the outset, “I was skin and bones and in very bad shape. I had no energy and could hardly eat,” she said. Three months after starting the new therapy, her spleen shrank to almost normal size, she returned to her normal weight, and her energy and overall quality of life improved. Joan was back in business, able to resume her jewelry work.   

The drug used to treat Joan’s condition is now FDA-approved and similar drugs are now available in new clinical trials, including two trials offered through the Medical College.

Dr. Atallah sees a brighter future for Joan and other patients. “Targeted therapies are emerging as a means to managing certain cancers and maintaining an improved quality of life.” 
 

WEB EXTRA: Clinical trials offer patients the newest, most advanced treatment options and are only available at select institutions around the U.S. Read more about the cancer clinical trials offered through the Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Center at:  Cancer clinical trials
 


Dr. Atallah is Assistant Professor of Medicine in Hematology and Oncology.

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