More than 120 people participated in the first IU Grand Challenges webinar about the Precision Health Initiative. The theme of this event was progress in triple negative breast cancer, featuring Bryan Schneider, MD, and Milan Radovich, PhD, co-leaders of the IU Precision Health Initiative triple negative breast cancer disease research team, as well as breast cancer survivor Meredith McMahan who is also a practice administrator at IU Health. Tatiana Foroud, PhD, who leads the IU Precision Health Initiative, was a featured panelist, with IU Vice President for Research Fred Cate serving as the host.
Schneider started by sharing some background information about breast cancer, and specifically triple negative breast cancer. The disease preferentially impacts young women and Black women, and also has a high mortality rate.
McMahan shared with the audience that she first noticed something unusual when she was breastfeeding her 10-month-old baby and felt a lump in her breast. At the time, she thought it was just a clogged milk duct, but ended up getting it checked anyway. Schneider, who was McMahan’s doctor, called her to let her know she had triple negative breast cancer. She was 30 years old then and determined to beat the disease.
“I knew that I had a young family that I wanted to be there for,” said McMahan. “I wanted to see my son grow up. I’m very fortunate to be able to do that.”
McMahan went through eight rounds of chemotherapy, seven surgeries and six weeks of radiation to complete her treatment
Radovich talked about a recent discovery by their team that the presence of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) and circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in the plasma of women’s blood who have undergone chemotherapy prior to surgery for the treatment of stage 1, 2 or 3 triple negative breast cancer are critical indicators for the prediction of disease recurrence and disease-free survival. They hope their findings will lay the groundwork for more advancements to personalize treatments for triple negative breast cancer patients like McMahan.
“I’m so thankful to these researchers because I know so many more women will walk down this same road and maybe they will have a little more peace of mind,” said McMahan.
The researchers also shared information about an upcoming clinical trial called PERSEVERE, which will open later this year at 20 sites across the United States recruiting a total of 200 women. This study will differentiate women with triple negative breast cancer based on whether they are ctDNA-positive and assign them a targeted therapy matched to the patient’s genomic sequencing. The physician will choose what kind of therapy the women without ctDNA receive.
“Some patients do well with a certain drug and some do not,” said Radovich, who is an associate professor of surgery at IU School of Medicine. “There is no such thing as the average patient. With precision health, we want to tailor therapy to the individual alterations of a particular tumor for each patient. This is what we see as the future of cancer therapy.”
Other initiatives the IU Precision Health Initiative triple negative breast cancer team are working on include the Komen Tissue Bank at the IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, the only heathy breast tissue bank in the world, as well as a novel study about Black women with breast cancer called EAZ171. Schneider said they were inspired to start the EAZ171 study because they noticed Black women being treated for breast cancer were more likely to have side effects, such as neuropathy, leading doctors to reduce the dose or stop giving the drug, which could create an even worse situation for the patient who didn’t get the full dose.
“This clinical trial will enroll only Black women and it’s the first of its kind,” said Schneider, who is a Vera Bradley professor of oncology at IU School of Medicine. “We’re very proud because we believe this is the way to tackle this disparity issue. This study will try to find the best drug for Black patients in terms of toxicity, which we hope will also result in better efficacy.”
The next IU Grand Challenge event featuring the Precision Health Initiative will be in May, showcasing the work being done by the pediatric sarcomas team.
“Our goal through the IU Precision Health Initiative is to tackle some of the deadliest and most dreaded diseases, bringing clinicians and researchers together to make a difference,” said Foroud, who is the executive associate dean for research affairs at IU School of Medicine. “We believe there is an opportunity to help Hoosiers and people around the world through this program and we’re already making significant progress.”