MD Anderson Showcases “Moon Shots” Progress in Fight Against Cancer

Through its “Moon Shots” program, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center aims to use big-data techniques to radically change how cancer is treated—and, perhaps, help find a cure.

The goal is decades old, of course, but the institute hopes new technologies will enable its teams to make significant progress in patient care in the coming years.

“We’re leveraging analytics with mobile technology to create customized real-time treatment plans,” said Ron DePinho, MD Anderson’s CEO. “This enables us to do proactive screening and diagnosis instead of late-stage disease management.”

Moon Shots is designed to apply healthcare data analytics to evaluate new cancer therapies as well as biomarkers to help guide and monitor treatment of eight types of cancer—acute myeloid leukemia, myelodysplastic syndrome, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, melanoma, lung cancer, prostate cancer, so-called triple-negative breast cancer, and ovarian cancer.

On Thursday, DePinho provided an update to the two-year-old program in front of gathered donors, patients, doctors, and researchers in a sort of pep rally that featured snappy videos, patient testimonials, and thank-yous to major donors.

Among the advances the program has made is the MD Anderson Oncology Expert Advisor System, which was developed with IBM and creates a database with historical cases, literature, and guidelines. “This democratizes knowledge … and enables physicians everywhere to engage the latest technologies,” said Lynda Chin, chair of MD Anderson’s department of genomic medicine and an Xconomist. “This gives patients access to equitable care no matter who they are or where they are.”

MD Anderson provided a lengthy update for each of the cancer projects underway, but a few stood out as most notable:

For the institute’s lung cancer project, DePinho said researchers had identified two leukemia drugs that could be used to treat lung cancer. They screened 30 FDA-approved cancer drugs against 90 human, non-small cell lung cancer lines to use those drugs in targeted-therapy clinical trials. One of the drugs, ibrutinib, is the focus of a clinical trial for patients with treatment-resistant disease and specific mutations in the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR.) The trial is open, but no patients have enrolled yet.

DePinho said that lung cancer—which currently has a survival rate of only 15 percent—is a key target because it is highly treatable if caught early. Most cases are now diagnosed after the cancer has spread, however. To help with earlier diagnosis, MD Anderson is also planning a clinical trial on a blood test that might be able to catch the cancer sooner than current CT screening techniques.

For the program related to chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), DePinho said researchers are making progress in phasing out the use of chemotherapy and replacing it with new targeted therapies for those patients. Researchers have found that drugs like ibrutinib and idelalisib, as well as the monoclonal antibody rituximab, reduces the number of malignant white blood cells with fewer and less-harsh side effects than chemotherapy. Today, 15 percent of patients with CLL at MD Anderson are treated with chemo compared to 48 percent two years ago, said DePinho, who is also an Xconomist.

Investigators are currently running a 208-patient clinical trial of ibrutinib alone versus that drug with rituximab. Each patient’s CLL is being genomically analyzed before treatment, after treatment begins, and after the disease becomes resistant, if that occurs. MD Anderson says such analysis will enable doctors to understand how resistance occurs and how to stop it.

Though most of the event focused on the technical aspects of the Moon Shots program, MD Anderson did bring out a few patients to bring a personal touch to the research.

Among those was Bruce Campbell, an 80-year-old lung cancer patient from Amarillo, TX, who is participating in a clinical trial for a drug that he said has shrunk his tumors by 50 percent. Campbell had been a longtime employee of Pantex, the Texas Panhandle facility that assembled nuclear weapons for the U.S. government during the Cold War.

Campbell is also allowing scientists to genetically analyze his tumors. Diagnosed five years ago, Campbell says he now feels well enough to climb mountains. “As of now I’m healthy,” he said. “I feel good… I feel great.”


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