Drug tested in Charlotte shows 'game-changer' results in cancer fight

'Game-changer' lung cancer medicine

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - She has a bounce in her step, a sparkle in her eye, and a constant smile on her face. It's really hard to imagine lung cancer looking any better than it does on Edwina Edgeworth.

"It's good to actually be out," said Edgeworth, a non-smoker, as she took a morning stroll outside her Monroe, NC home.

Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in the United States. Another person gets a diagnosis every 2-and-a-half minutes. It's hard to detect early. So, like most, Edgeworth was diagnosed late-term. She was Stage IV. The stats tell you, making it a year is a 50-50 proposition.

"Yeah, that's what they said," said a giggling Edgeworth. "I didn't (believe it). I wasn't feeling it."

She has every reason to laugh. Not only was her lung cancer diagnosis three years ago, but her original medication, a medicine that left her with painful skin rashes, quit working last spring. She would find out drug resistance is a common problem for cancer patients, but lucky for her she was offered something new. A one-a-day drug called AZD9291.

"(My cancer tumors) shrunk, they are going away little by little," said Edgeworth.

Dr. Daniel Haggstrom, is Edgeworth's oncologist at Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte.

"The best we know with this type of cancer, controlling the tumors and make them shrink is a very good result," said Haggstrom.

In front of him, on his desktop computer, was the evidence of that very good result, pictures of Edgeworth's latest scan.

"Over 50% reduction," said Dr. Haggstrom.

Tumors, deep in her lungs, that measured seven centimeters across, one year ago, are down to three. And it's happening without the agony of side-effects so many drug bring along.

"I'm grateful. I don't have any pains, or side-effect," said Edgeworth. "I'm pretty much able to have a normal life."

"(We saw improvement) within the second month of therapy, very quickly," said Haggstrom. "I was surprised."

Edgeworth is one of ten patients at Levine Cancer Institute taking AZD 9291 as a part of the trial. The center is one of a handful of location in the country to get the okay to test AZD 9291. The medicine is unique because it targets a specific sub-set of lung cancer identified through genome testing. It's success could be the next breakthrough in what's called personalized medicine. It's a big deal in cancer treatments.

"Every individual is an individual. There tumors are different," said Dr. Edward Kim.

Dr. Kim is the Chair of Solid Tumor Oncology at LCI. He came to to Charlotte from the MD Anderson Cancer Institute in Houston.

"We can chose therapies based on a person's individual genetic makeup," said Dr. Kim. "In this particular subset one pathway is driving the growth making it spread, making it harm you. This one pill (AZD 9291) is like the key going into keyhole. It shuts down that pathway. The tumors die, they disappear."

The results of the AZD 9291 trial were published in the April 30th, 2015 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. The data shows the rate of disease control was 84%. 51%, like Edgeworth, saw tumor reduction. The other 33% getting the medicine saw their tumors being controlled, meaning they were no longer growing. Doctors who are often conservative in the words they choose are using terms like 'game-changer' when talking about this drug and the broader use of personalized medicine.

"It's a very big leap forward," said Dr. Haggrstrom who co-authored the study on AZD 9291.

This lung cancer research trial is one of several now going on at LCI. Dr. Kim is leading the charge to bring more of these cutting edge, investigative drugs to patients in Charlotte and the entire Carolinas Healthcare System. Right now, he says LCI is part of more than two dozen Phase I Trials, covering more than 15 different cancers.

During Phase One trials, researchers test a new drug in small groups for the first time. It's meant to evaluate the drug's safety, determine a safe dosage range, and identify side effects. The trials are often attractive to doctors and patients because everyone in Phase I is getting the medication. In later phases some patients are given placebos.

"We are at a crossroads with so many different therapies," said Dr. Kim. "There are a lot of genes that we have no idea what they mean, but there are a few that are directly matched up with treatments. (For those matches) we have a therapy that can really change (a patient's) life."

The frustration though, because these are specific, patient-unique therapies, they don't work on everyone. Edgeworth's subset of lung cancer only affects about 10% of patients, but knowing it works for her, encourages research in more areas.

"As we understand the cancer genome more we will be able to do this for other types of cancers," said Dr. Haggstrom.

"We got to keep chopping wood," said Dr. Kim. "We got to keep grinding."

Edwina Edgeworth is going to keep walking, moving and oh yes, laughing.

"It's (the medicine) is working," said Edgeworth. "It's working and I'm excited."

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