Breast Cancer Patients Access Innovative Care through UA Cancer Center Clinical Trials

Breast cancer is a top killer, striking 1 of 8 women. In response, the University of Arizona Cancer Center offers clinical trials to find better treatments for the disease.

The University of Arizona Cancer Center boasts the leading breast cancer program in the Southwest, providing a multidisciplinary and personalized approach to care.

Patients are supported by a team of caring, dedicated experts and have access to novel therapies through participation in clinical trials. UA Cancer Center physician-scientists are seeking patients to enroll in clinical trials, which help improve cancer treatment and advance the field’s understanding of cancer.

“We have really good trials for all stages of breast cancer,” said Pavani Chalasani, MD, MPH, leader of the UA Cancer Center’s breast cancer clinical research team. “We collaborate with our own scientists, who come up with unique techniques and medicines, both for prevention and also for treatment.”

Clinical trials are studies that investigate whether a drug, device or even a particular strategy is safe and effective for patients. The results illuminate which approaches work best for certain types of illnesses or people. These trials also give patients access to care they might be unable to access elsewhere in the community.

“We offer several early-phase trials through our Phase I Program for patients who have been through multiple lines of treatment,” said Dr. Chalasani. “For patients of early-stage, curable cancer, and for those who have high-risk disease, we offer clinical trials in addition to standard of care — it is a potential way to receive tomorrow’s treatment today.”

One exciting field of research is “immunotherapy,” in which a patient’s immune system is trained to target cancer cells with more precision than chemotherapy or radiation treatments. Simran Sindhu, DO, is recruiting participants for a clinical trial investigating pembrolizumab in patients with difficult-to-treat triple-negative breast cancer, a form of the disease that is resistant to several of the most common treatments. Known by the brand name Keytruda®, pembrolizumab already has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for other types of cancer.

Breast cells have receptors for the hormones estrogen and progesterone. Hormonal therapies attach to these receptors to deliver chemotherapy to cancerous cells. When these receptors are missing, hormonal therapies are ineffective. Breast cells also express a protein called HER2, which can be targeted by other cancer drugs.

Triple-negative breast cancers lack hormone receptors and do not express large amounts of HER2, and cannot be treated with hormonal therapy and HER2-targeting drugs. Patients with triple-negative breast cancer need new, effective therapies.

“Despite strides made in chemotherapy regimens, and in overall survival for patients with breast cancer, prognosis for patients with triple-negative breast cancer continues to lag behind those with hormone-receptor positive and HER2-positive tumors,” said Dr. Sindhu. “This trial is exciting because now we have a treatment option for patients with triple-negative breast cancer with immunotherapy, which is becoming the forefront of treatment options for many malignancies.”

Dr. Chalasani also is recruiting patients for a trial to investigate the use of hormonal therapy prior to surgery in early-stage estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancers.

“This trial is unique in that it provides the opportunity to use hormonal therapy prior to surgery to understand the tumor’s sensitivity to such therapy,” explained Dr. Chalasani. “It will help when making treatment decisions for patients.”

In addition to novel treatment trials, UA Cancer Center investigators offer unique imaging trials that address side effects of some of the current treatment regimens. Lana Gimber, MD, MPH, a radiologist, and Dr. Chalasani are recruiting patients being treated with chemotherapy that can lead to neuropathy, nerve damage that can cause pain or numbness. They are exploring an MRI method to determine if it can be used to predict who is at risk of developing neuropathic side effects.

“If we are able to identify who is at risk up front, then we potentially can implement prevention strategies or change the treatment, if necessary,” said Dr. Chalasani. “This way we are able to prevent long-lasting, debilitating side effects.”

By seeking better strategies for treating breast cancer patients’ unique needs, the UA Cancer Center breast cancer team hopes to expand standard of care beyond the one-size-fits-all treatments of yesteryear. In addition to medical oncologists, the team includes surgeons, radiation oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, psychiatrists, therapists, genetic counselors, lymphedema therapists, and social workers who provide patients and their loved ones support during what is, for many patients, the most difficult time of their lives.

“Taking care of patients is very rewarding,” said Dr. Chalasani. “Some of them go through their hardest times. Patient care — being able to work with them and see how we can help them — is the best part of the day.”

About the University of Arizona Cancer Center

The University of Arizona Cancer Center is the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center headquartered in Arizona. The Center is supported by NCI Cancer Center Support Grant No. CA023074. With primary locations at the University of Arizona in Tucson and at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, the Center has more than a dozen research and education offices in Phoenix and throughout the state and 300 physician and scientist members who work together to prevent and cure cancer. For more information: uacc.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube)

About the University of Arizona Health Sciences

The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. The UA Health Sciences includes the UA Colleges of Medicine (Phoenix and Tucson), Nursing, Pharmacy and Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the growing Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, the UA Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona and the greater Southwest to provide cutting-edge health education, research, patient care and community outreach services. A major economic engine, the UA Health Sciences employs almost 5,000 people, has nearly 1,000 faculty members and garners more than $126 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu