Breast Cancer Drug to be Tested at UPMC, Armstrong County Memorial

Filed under Magee-Womens Hospital

By Allison M. Heinrichs, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

A UPMC cancer doctor is playing an important role in an international clinical trial for a drug that has the potential to be the next big thing in breast cancer treatment.

Dr. Adam Brufsky, co-director of the UPMC Cancer Centers' Magee Breast Cancer Program, is one of four doctors on the steering committee for the clinical trial, called CLEOPATRA, which aims to enroll 800 patients at 250 sites worldwide, including 77 in the United States.

The drug they're testing, called pertuzumab, was shown in early, smaller clinical trials to reduce by 25 percent the recurrence of breast cancer in patients who test positive for a protein called HER2. The protein appears in about 30 percent of patients and is associated with more aggressive cancer.

"We're very excited," said Brufsky, who plans to enroll 20 patients in Western Pennsylvania. "This might lead the way to helping more people - even those who aren't HER2-positive."

The drug, developed by Genentech Inc., seems to block other proteins associated with cancer growth, giving hope that it could be an option for more patients.

CLEOPATRA stands for the clinical trial's official name: clinical evaluation of pertuzumab and trastuzumab. Trastuzumab is a drug commonly known as Herceptin.

In addition to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Armstrong County Memorial Hospital in Kittanning is enrolling patients in the clinical trial. Results aren't expected until 2012.

Pertuzumab builds upon the success of Herceptin, which reduces recurrences of breast cancer in 50 percent of HER2-positive patients. It was approved more than a decade ago.

Judy Dyke, 60, of Carnegie was among the first patients treated with Herceptin.

Shortly after her breast cancer treatment was completed, Brufsky discovered tumors throughout her liver. She had high levels of the HER2 protein, making her an ideal candidate for Herceptin.

Two months after starting it, she returned to Brufsky's office for a checkup.

"I was hoping he'd tell me there was a slight reduction, or no change. I would have been thrilled with that," she said. "But he told me there was an 80 percent reduction. I almost fell off the lab table, it was so amazing."

Since then she has continued on Herceptin and recently was told she is considered cancer-free. However, she still sees the need for better treatments, such as pertuzumab, that improve upon Herceptin.

"So many women who are on Herceptin just like I am, they have a recurrence and they die. My best friend died two years ago and she was on Herceptin," said Dyke, who is not eligible for the clinical trial.

The clinical trial is recruiting women 18 and older who have HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer, which means that it has spread to other parts of the body.

All the women enrolled in the test will receive chemotherapy and Herceptin - the traditional treatment for this type of cancer - coupled with either pertuzumab or a placebo.

Patients whose cancer was caught early aren't eligible.

So far Brufsky has enrolled four of the 20 patients he needs. Armstrong County Memorial Hospital is awaiting test results for its first potential enrollee.

"We're a much smaller hospital," said Dana Klingensmith, the nurse who administers cancer clinical trials for the hospital. "So our goal is only one or two patients. It's not going to be a lot, but we're here if anybody's interested."

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