When 40-year-old mother-of-two Rachael Rothman found a lump in her breast in the shower, she did what she was told. Double mastectomy, the removal of 23 lymph nodes and eight rounds of chemotherapy using three different drugs. But a year later, the cancer had returned, and her options were limited.
Rachael was extremely unlucky in the breast cancer lottery. She has a form called triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), which means it is not driven by the hormones estrogen and progesterone, nor the HER2 receptors that are the targets of most breast cancer drugs. Although only 15 percent of breast cancer patients have this form of aggressive tumor, it accounts for 85 percent of deaths, and the average life expectancy of someone with late stage TNBC is just nine months.
Rachael’s luck changed, however, when she enrolled in a clinical trial at the Weill Cornell Medicine Breast Center testing a new treatment for TNBC involving a simple oral medication that reduces copper levels in the patient’s body.
She was one of 75 patients enrolled in the first phase of the trial, which has shown promising results for the otherwise hard-to-treat cancer. And now she is part of a project to make the innovative treatment available to more patients through a new crowdfunding campaign.
The Breaking Through Cancer campaign, recently launched at https://crowdfunding.cornell.edu/breakingthroughcancer, is attempting to raise the $1 million needed to fund the next phase of clinical trial for tetrathiomolybdate (TM).
Linda Vahdat, M.D., researcher and oncologist at the Weill Cornell Medicine Breast Center and co-leader of the breast cancer working group at the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center, believes TM could be a breakthrough for triple negative cancer patients. Data presented at leading scientific conferences and recently published in the academic journal Clinical Cancer Research has already supported the claim.
"Instead of destroying cancer tumors by radiation or chemotherapy, this therapeutic approach seeks to disrupt the biological environment that tumors co-opt in order to facilitate their spread. Without the right environment, tumors just become dormant. The effect is similar to having a car just run out of gas,” Vahdat said.
“The medication so far is safe and well-tolerated,” she added. “Many less tumors have recurred than originally projected, and relapses are rare after two years on the study.”
TM is a copper chelation compound used primarily to treat Wilson's disease, a hereditary copper metabolism disorder. It is very affordable, which is good news for patients, but bad news for attracting interest from pharmaceutical companies to sponsor clinical trials.
So Vahdat has turned to the public to help her continue her research. Donations to the site will be directly applied to preparing and developing a randomized Phase II clinical trial that would extend her current New York City-based project nationwide.
Visitors to the crowdfunding site, created with pro bono help from NYC advertising and marketing agency Wilson, can contribute any amount, and learn more about the impact of their donation.
“Our focus is on saving lives and making cancer a manageable, chronic disease and not a fatal one,” says Vahdat. “Today, people are living with diseases like HIV and diabetes. Not just living, but living quality lives. That is the goal for we are seeking for cancer patients as well, starting with breast cancer.”
If proven successful in breast cancer, the approach – among the first to target the biological environment of tumors – could be applied to other cancers as well.