Sometime in the future, people may look back on today as the golden age in cancer research.
“In the old days, we used cytotoxic drugs that kind of worked across the board, just sort of wiped out rapidly growing cells. The newer advances in molecular biology and biochemistry is that they’re finding out what are the growth pathways that drive various cancers. And unfortunately it’s complex; many cancers have several different pathways so when you block one, you may be able to reverse the cancer for a period of time and then it finds its way to get around it,” says Dr. William Harwin, oncologist on Lee Memorial Health System’s medical staff.
As cancer treatment moves toward individual drug therapy, studies are honing in on these cancer pathways and trying to find ways to shut them down. That’s where drug trials come into play.
“That’s what basically produces advances. And that is also a way in which we give the latest cutting edge therapies to patients,” says Dr. Harwin.
Clinical trials come in four phases. The first involves patients who have exhausted their options. It looks at the safety of a drug. The final phase generally comes after FDA approval. At any given time, people in Southwest Florida are taking part.
Each drug has different qualifying characteristics that determine whether someone is eligible. It’s the nature of trials that not everyone gets the experimental drug.
“It’s double-blinded, so there’s absolutely no chance for bias or that someone could interfere with the results. So even though I had a patient on the trial, I don’t know if they got the treatment drug or they got the placebo drug,” says Dr. Harwin.
Several drugs, including ones for lung, skin and breast cancer were tested locally, and went on to get FDA approval.
“That’s really exciting to know that I put a patient here in Fort Myers on a trial that lead to a new drug that’s going to improve the treatment of breast cancer,” says Dr. Harwin.
As researchers attack cancer from the cellular level, it gives cancer doctors more options to fight it in the real world.