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Heroes in the fight against breast cancer

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Photo of Linda Vahdat, M.D.Linda Vahdat, M.D. It can be hard to find hope in a diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, an aggressive disease with limited treatment options.

But Linda Vahdat, M.D., and her team of surgeons, radiologists, medical oncologists, radiotherapists and nurses at the Weill Cornell Breast Center have been delivering just that for hundreds of patients, and their efforts have been recognized recently by the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation.

Vahdat, director of the Breast Cancer Research program at Weill Cornell Medical College, received the foundation’s Hero Award at the May 20 Peace Love and A Cure reception in Cresskill, New Jersey, a fundraising event that has raised more than $2.5 million over the past seven years to support research initiatives, resources and services to the triple negative community.

“I believe the women and their families and friends are the real heroes in their journey through triple negative breast cancer,” Dr. Vahdat said. “My job is to understand and then eradicate triple negative breast cancer — something which cannot be accomplished alone.”

According to the foundation, Vahdat was recognized for “her commitment to developing new therapeutic options for the treatment of triple negative breast cancer and for her dedication to providing exceptional care for patients battling the disease.”

Triple negative breast cancer occurs in about 10-20 percent of diagnosed breast cancers and is more likely to affect younger people, African Americans, Hispanics, and/or those with a BRCA1 gene mutation.

It is so named because the three most common types of receptors known to fuel most breast cancer growth–estrogen, progesterone, and the HER-2/neu gene– are not present in the cancer tumor. As such, common treatments (such as hormone therapy and drugs that target estrogen, progesterone, and HER-2) are ineffective, and chemotherapy is often the only option. The cancer also tends to be aggressive and more likely to spread and recur - median survival once it becomes metastatic is nine months, and those who survive have a high risk of relapse from hidden residual disease.

Three years ago, Vahdat helped establish a triple-negative breast cancer clinic within the Weill Cornell Breast Center, making it one of only two such clinics in the country. Patients at the clinic have been able to participate in innovative clinical trials to test emerging drug therapies based on breakthrough research conducted in laboratories at Weill Cornell.

“It’s a difficult disease, but we don’t shy away from things that are difficult,” Vahdat said. “We saw that there was a big unmet need, and we decided to jump in and tackle it. We have since built a terrific portfolio of drugs to treat the disease, and have conducted a lot of research in order to better understand why it spreads. Nothing would make us happier than to be ‘out of business’.”

One area of research that shows particular promise is targeting the tumor microenvironment to make it inhospitable for cancer progression. A team at Weill and NewYork-Presbyterian conducted a phase II study of 75 triple negative breast cancer patients to see whether using a drug (tetrathiomolybdate) to deplete copper supplies might stop the cancer from spreading, by disabling the ability of bone marrow cells from setting up a "home" in organs to receive and nurture migrating tumor cells.

Vahdat said the results – which were presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago on June 1 – are very promising, and warrant a further phase III trial, in which the drug would be given to large groups of people to confirm its effectiveness, monitor side effects, compare it to other treatments, and collect information that will allow the therapy to used widely.

“If successful, it would be the first triple-negative directed therapy, and the first product or strategy that alters the tumor microenvironment to treat cancer,” Vahdat said.

“As the lines between cancer types blend, there could be implications for other difficult-to-treat cancers as well, such as ovarian cancer or lung cancer,” she added.

Read coverage of the ASCO copper depletion study presentation here.

Visit the Breast Center blog to read more about other research being presented at ASCO.