Only heart disease claims more lives in the United States than cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2011, more than 1,500 people died each day from the disease. With these grim numbers in mind, researchers often work tirelessly at finding new treatments to give cancer patients a fighting chance.
Dr. Michael Tomblyn of the Moffitt Cancer Center
is one of those researchers. At Moffitt, his reputation is growing for strategically tackling cancer on a patient-by-patient basis with the development of Systemic Targeted Radionuclide Therapy treatment.
Instead of attacking the entire body with chemotherapy as many cancer treatments do, this liquid radiation therapy attaches radiation to an antibody which then seeks out specific proteins on the surface of tumors to deliver a very targeted radiation. These radioimmunotherapy agents bind to the cancerous cells and release low-dose radiation to the area to decrease tumor size and eventually eradicate cancer in the body.
Unlike traditional chemotherapy and broadly delivered radiation, radioimmunotherapy has minimal side effects. There is no hair loss, and the nausea and fatigue experienced with the initial treatment generally decreases as the weeks pass.
With a new treatment that offers survival rates greater than standard chemotherapy as well as pain relief and manageable side effects, Tomblyn's new treatment may soon become a top choice for many cancer patients.
"There are a number of different forms of liquid radiation,'' Tomblyn says. "The types that we use depend on the types of cancer that people have.''
Different drugs called "agents'' are used to deliver the radiation directly to the cancer site. There are agents that deliver radiation to solid tumors such as those found in prostate and lung cancer.
"We have patients with metastatic prostate cancer'' who experience extreme pain after failing with chemotherapy, Tomblyn says. "As long as they’re on this drug, their pain is managed.'' Blood counts increase toward healthy levels, and side effects are reduced.
"People are living longer after this therapy, and they're also managing pain.''
Tomblyn says researchers are working toward radioimmunotherapy treatments for ovarian and breast cancers.
Lymphoma requires different treatment. Since lymphomas are multifocal, radiation must be delivered to multiple sites in the body. Radioimmunitherapy and agents like Zevalin and Bexxar are the best ways to target multiple sites, Tomblyn says.
For lymphoma, Tomblyn deems this treatment to be "extraordinarily effective. It's the most effective treatment for lymphoma, and yet it is drastically underutilized.''
A Survivor Speaks
Nancy McDougall of Zephyrhills, age 69, can testify to the effectiveness of radioimmunotherapy with Zevalin. Following a diagnosis of follicular lymphoma, she was given Rituxan treatments that kept her lymphoma-free for nearly a year and a half. After developing a node by her left ear, however, she was taken in for a biopsy and told that the cancer had returned.
"I was given two options,'' she says. ''The radiation, or a case-study.''
After Tomblyn explained the benefits of radioimmunotherapy, McDougall was convinced. The following week she was taken in for treatment.
"It was a one-time only infusion, and then I had blood work for only 9 weeks,'' she says. Initially McDougall was scheduled for weekly blood work for the entire 12-week course of the treatment, but after 9 weeks, her results showed such substantial improvement that the final three sessions were unnecessary.
"At 12 weeks, they did another CAT scan, and I was clear. I was declared lymphoma-free.''
The radioimmunotherapy treatment is expected to keep McDougall cancer-free for the next 5 to 10 years.
During the course of the treatment, McDougall experienced side effects that would be considered negligible by most chemotherapy patients.
"I did have some nausea for a couple weeks, but that subsided,'' she says. "Initially the main thing I experienced was severe fatigue. It got better as I went along. That was the main side effect.''
Now, McDougall is back to doing what she loves -- volunteering at a Christian school with 1st and 2nd graders.
"I have my life back. I have my strength back now.''
The Next Step
2012 could prove to be an excellent year for both Tomblyn and cancer research as a whole.
"A new drug called Alpharadin should be approved by the FDA this time next year,'' Tomblyn explains. "This is the first type of liquid radiation that not only gets rid of people's pain they have from cancer that has spread to the bone, but also targets the cancer.''
approval would allow Tomblyn to offer Systemic Targeted Radionuclide Therapy as a primary treatment rather than a trial.
Over the next year, research will continue as Tomblyn searches for ways to target different types of cancer.
Theresa Woods is a graduate of the University of South Florida, freelance writer and literature nerd living in Tampa. In her spare time, she writes, contemplates her place in the universe and enjoys being an all-purpose geek with her friends. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.