Young Investigators Lead Cancer Care into the Future: On the Fast Track
Published February 2006
Although we've made strides in the fight against cancer, more than 1.3 million people were diagnosed with the disease in 2005, according to the American Cancer Society.
Scientists agree the best way to overcome cancer is with research that will uncover better methods of preventing, treating and ultimately eradicating the disease.
That's why the Southwest Oncology Group (SWOG)--one of the largest clinical trial cooperatives in the United States--formed the Young Investigators training program in 1996 to put promising young researchers on the fast track to conducting nationwide clinical trials.
And UC Cancer Center physician-researchers Zeina Nahleh, MD, Syed Ahmad, MD, and Rami Komrokji, MD, are right at the front of the pack.
The physicians are part of an elite 35-person group of young cancer researchers who have completed the SWOG program. Not only were they selected--they completed the program in successive years and will see their trials come to fruition, both accomplishments that few universities can claim. According to SWOG, less than one-third of the clinical trials submitted through the program have been activated.
Dr. Nahleh's trial began recruiting patients last fall. Drs. Ahmad and Komrokji's trials are going through final approval and are expected to begin in late 2006.
"Cancer research is in a very exciting phase," says SWOG chairman Laurence Baker, DO. "Helping these bright young doctors learn how to properly conduct clinical trials will help cancer researchers everywhere come closer to preventing and treating cancer and improve the quality of life for cancer survivors."
SWOG annually selects four outstanding young cancer investigators through a competitive, nationwide application process that includes submitting a practical clinical study concept. During the course, researchers get intensive training in statistical principles, data collection and analysis, critical decision making and procedures necessary to manage an efficient and ethical clinical research study.
Dr. Nahleh, director of UC's breast oncology program, is leading a study of aromatase inhibitors--specifically anastrozole (Arimidex)-- in the treatment of men with advanced breast cancer. Although there are differences in the biology of female and male breast cancers, treatment has historically been based on accepted approaches in women.
"We believe that anastrozole--when used in conjunction with a gonadotropin-releasing hormone injection--may result in significant reduction of estrogen levels and, consequently, better control of the breast tumor," explains Dr. Nahleh.
Dr. Ahmad, a surgical oncologist, proposed a study of genes that may predict which gastric cancer patients are most likely to benefit from chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
"Our goal is to identify the genes that predict a patient's response to specific therapies," explains Dr. Ahmad. "If we can do that, then we can establish a patient-specific gene profile and better determine what treatments will give them the best chance for a cure."
Dr. Komrokji, director of the leukemia and lymphoma unit in the hematology and oncology division, will study myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of bone marrow cancer in which the body under produces blood cells.
"Erlotinib (Tarceva), one of a group of cancer drugs known as epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors, has been used successfully against lung cancer with few side effects," he explains. "We hope that using this drug in myelodysplastic syndrome patients will reduce the need for blood transfusions and slow progress of the disease, ultimately increasing the patients' quality of life.""There's a growing need for cancer researchers--inquiring minds with fresh ideas," says David Stern, MD, dean of the College of Medicine. "Our strong presence in the SWOG program is a testament to the UC Cancer Center's commitment to assembling a leadership team that brings the very best cancer care to the Tristate region.