Two San Antonio Physicians are Studying Breakthrough Drugs
The diagnosis of cancer may seem like a nightmare. Possibilities for recovery, however, are stronger now than ever before, thanks to progressive—even radical— medical research. Advances in drug therapies to treat breast cancer are particularly dramatic, and some of these revolutionary developments are being born right here in San Antonio.
Amita Patnaik, M.D., FRCP(C), used her medical expertise and her passion for healing to co-found START, or South Texas Accelerated Research Therapeutics.
“As a researcher, my mission when I co-founded START was to accelerate the development of anti-cancer agents for the treatment and eventual cure of cancer,” she says. “Events of the last eight years have reaffirmed my faith that perseverance can pave the way to achieving the seemingly unattainable, and in doing so, one can redefine the arc of a cancer patient’s life.”
Additional START centers in Madrid and Shanghai also pursue cancer cures. START conducts the world’s largest Phase I medical oncology program. Phase I clinical trials involve patients who volunteer to try out new drugs and therapies to determine if they are safe, to find the best dose and to create an efficient schedule for future research.
Dr. Patnaik and her colleagues at START have developed several pivotal drugs for breast cancer treatment that are now used to help patients everywhere. These breakthrough drug therapies include gemcitabine (Gemzar®), lapatinib (Tykerb®), eribulin (Halaven ®) and ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla ®). Dr. Patnaik expects another drug, abemaciclib, which was also developed at START, to be approved to treat breast cancer in the near future. Dr. Patnaik’s research primarily focuses on patients with advanced cancers that have not responded to any conventional treatments.
“My goal with every patient I evaluate is to provide concrete therapeutic strategies consisting of novel and cutting-edge anti-cancer therapy; however, the most important facet to me is to provide hope when no other meaningful options exist,” Dr. Patnaik says. “Some of the treatments that we have been developing at START could have been considered within the realm of science fiction just a short time ago but are now very real possibilities for patients living with advanced cancer.”
She is optimistic about her research with cell cycle inhibitors, which have produced promising results in both patients with advanced cancers and those with triple negative breast cancer. These types of drugs hinder cancer cell division and growth and, if combined with other types of anti-cancer therapy, could be a vital part of an effective treatment regimen for breast cancer patients.
Another San Antonio-based medical researcher is Virginia Kaklamani, M.D., D.SC., a professor of medicine and chief of the breast oncology program at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center. Like Dr. Patnaik, she also concentrates on finding new treatment possibilities for patients with triple negative breast cancer that has not responded to standard treatments, and, also like Dr. Patnaik, she studies cell cycle inhibitors and their role in effective breast cancer treatment.
An additional current project for Dr. Kaklamani is working to distinguish biomarkers that can identify what types of drugs and chemotherapy will best treat individuals with resistant types of cancers.
Another new treatment possibility that has both of these savvy medical researchers excited is immunotherapy.
“New and very exciting therapies that have been evaluated at our facility demonstrate that one can harness the capability of the body’s own immune system to fight cancer,” Dr. Patnaik says. “These therapies have changed the outcome of many lives from one of certain death to that of living cancer-free and being able to have a second chance at life.”
Dr. Kaklamani says several drugs are at different stages of research, and that she and her colleagues are searching for how they can be combined with chemotherapy to maximize the overall therapeutic effects of both. In short, patients with breast cancer, including the most resistant types, have good reason to hope, and two of the leading women researchers in the field encourage them to do so. Dr. Patnaik says that while a diagnosis of breast cancer may seem like a dark time, it is important for patients to remember that there are excellent therapies that can increase survival rates and improve quality of life.
“Better screening programs are leading to earlier detection such that many more women are being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer, which is curable,” Dr. Patnaik says. “It is important to rely on loved ones to get through the very difficult days, but one should never underestimate the power of one’s own strength, determination and courage.”
Dr. Kaklamani says it is an extremely difficult moment in a study when a participant takes a new drug for the first time, unsure of what the results may be, but that the courage and willingness of participants is what allows research to continue.
“We need to remember that this research happens because a lot of brave women agree to give us their tissue,” she says.
Dr. Patnaik says her mission when she co-founded START was to accelerate the development of anti-cancer agents for the treatment and eventual cure of cancer. Her work as a researcher, however, is as much about people as it is about disease.
“At a deeply personal level,” she says, “I see myself in each patient who walks through my doors, and at a human level, it is paramount to me that they be able to fulfill their life’s dreams, just as I have the opportunity to fulfill mine.”
By Pamela Mooman