The words "adenocarcinoma of the lung" required no further explanation. As a physician herself, Gene Burges knew what they meant.
"I told my husband, 'I've had a really wonderful life,'" said Burges, 64, who received her grim diagnosis in April 2009. "I knew it was the end."
But nearly two years later, the dermatologist and associate professor at Medical University of South Carolina has kicked the chronic cough and night sweats, and – according to her grateful sons – has returned to her "energetic self." After watching the glowing orange beacons of cancer disappear from her scans, she went so far as to buy a new house this year.
"I know it sounds crazy, but that's how good this drug makes you feel," said Burges, who travels 1,700 miles from her Charleston home each month to participate in a University of Colorado Cancer Center trial of a new lung cancer drug called Crizotinib.
The oval yellow tablet works by inhibiting a molecular mutation, or "oncogenic driver," called anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK), believed to be responsible for turning healthy cells into cancer cells in a select subset of lung cancer patients.
Only about 4 percent of patients (roughly 10,000 new U.S. lung cancer cases annually) possess the ALK mutation and are eligible for the drug. But while that number might seem small, extraordinary successes in early multicenter trials (shrinking or stabilizing tumors in 90 percent of patients) have become big news for two reasons, cancer specialists say.
One, it's providing another much-needed weapon in the limited arsenal against the world's deadliest cancer. And two, it could ultimately lead to a shift in the way other cancers are treated.
"We now know that what is driving the cancer is different between different cancers. If we can screen people for these oncogenic drivers and give them the right drug to interfere with the one they have, we can have a real impact," said Ross Camidge, director of the Thoracic Oncology Clinical Program at the cancer center and principal investigator for a number of ALK-inhibitor trials. "One-size-fits-all treatments are yesterday's paradigm. This is personalized medicine."
To read more of this story from the Spring issue of CU Medicine Today, published by the University of Colorado School of Medicine, click here.