Iowa doctors, researchers continue to look for ways to cure and prevent cancer

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Brady Smith


The Iowa Cancer Registry reports close to 16,900 Iowans had cancer the last time it gathered data in 2012. That was down from the year before, when around 17,400 Iowans had cancer. Doctors and researchers continue to look for ways to cure and prevent cancer. Thousands of people still die from it every year, but there is hope in the success stories of those who’ve beaten it.

Turn back the clock about 6 years, and life wasn’t always happy for Jodie Grundy of Marion.

“I just had this cough that wouldn’t go away,” Grundy said. “Treated for colds, then eventually went back and thought it was strep, and thought I possibly had [tuberculosis], because it had gone on so many months.”

An X-ray revealed spots on her lungs. It was cancer. Her doctors told her she wasn’t a candidate for surgery, and her chance of survival was low.

“The specialist I saw in Mayo said even with treatment, you have a 5 percent chance,” Grundy said. She had two options: undergo regular chemotherapy and radiation, or take part in a clinical trial. Grundy’s doctor, Deb Wilbur, said she made the “generous” decision of enrolling in the experimental trial.

“They were looking at new ways to treat that using different schedules of radiation, as well as a new medication that had not previously been tried in lung cancer,” said Dr. Wilbur, oncologist at the Hall-Perrine Cancer Center in Cedar Rapids.

Grundy had one thought going in: “even if this doesn’t work, you know, you’re helping research and you’re helping other people.”

It’s those clinical trials, Doctor Wilbur said, that hold the best chance for finding a cure. “The first person who’s going to be cured of a cancer that up until that date was incurable, is going to be on a clinical trial.”

That search for a cure is the focus of a team of doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Dr. Sue O’Dorisio explained the complexities of cancer means finding a cure isn’t easy. She admits most of her team’s patients — who suffer from rare neuroendocrine tumors — won’t end up cancer-free.

“Our cure rate is probably about 5 percent,” said O’Dorisio.

Instead, her team focuses on improving quality of life, as 75 percent of their patients at least respond to this specialized treatment. Researchers say highly-personalized treatments are the most effective. Dr. O’Dorisio is using a method called “targeted medicine” to treat neuroendocrine tumors.

“We know that neuroendocrine tumors grow rather slowly. They don’t respond well to normal chemotherapy drugs,” Dr. O’Dorisio said.

Research scientist Molly Martin combines cancer-fighting drugs with a radioactive isotope that fights the tumors.

“What we’re working with is yttrium 90 dotatoc,” Martin explained. A single dose takes about 3 and a half hours to assemble, and then it goes to the patient immediately.

“We can send this radioactive drug straight to the tumor, and use localized radiation therapy,” Dr. O’Dorisio told us. That means fewer negative side effects on the liver and bones, organs the tumors usually show up in. But that treatment is costly and slow.

“Right now, we can only treat one to two patients a week,” said Dr. O’Dorisio.

Dr. Yusuf Menda, another member of her team, has to make sure every dose is compatible with every person.

“If we think that the patient is unlikely to respond to the treatment based on the diagnostic test, then we do not administer the therapeutic drug,” Dr. Menda told us.

While a cure remains elusive, it is success stories — like one of O’Dorisio’s patients — that encourage researchers.

“He was no longer able to walk without a lot of pain,” O’Dorisio recalled. “He came back to us in six weeks, and he had been hiking in Colorado.”

Dr. O’Dorisio said prevention may be the ultimate cure, stopping these painful tumors before they start. “Ultimately, I think we all believe being able to prevent cancer is going to be much better than being able to cure it.”

In the meantime, there will be success stories like Grundy’s, which give hope to those still in the fight. 6 years after her diagnosis, she’s cancer-free.

“I was hopeful,” Grundy said. “You know, I think I never gave up hope.”