SEATTLE – In a recently-published study, researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found sleeping cancer cells could be targeted with chemotherapy.
“The big takeaway is that this popular notion of chemotherapy only targeting rapidly-dividing cells does not apply all of the time and that you actually can kill cells while they’re asleep and prevent metastasis,” said Dr. Cyrus Ghajar, lead researcher.
Ghajar said the study took four years, cost upwards of $1 million analyzing breast cancer in mice.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 40,000 people died in 2018 from breast cancer. Of those, the majority died from metastatic cancer, the process by which cancer cells spread to other parts of the body.
“I mean my husband and I – that’s all we did was cry,” said Teri Pollastro, remembering when she found out her cancer returned in 2003 after four years clear.
“We just couldn’t believe it. Because back then that was a death sentence.”
Pollastro, a research advocate on Dr. Ghajar’s study, said she was given 18 months when her breast cancer returned and had spread to her liver.
Pollastro, who’s received a chemotherapy infusion every three weeks for 11 of the last 16 years, believes her cancer cells were dormant only to reawaken and multiply when her cancer resurfaced in 2003.
Ghajar said it’s nightmares like Pollastro’s, of cancer returning, that helps drive him in the lab.
“We’re very invested as a laboratory in how we can target these cells, how we can kill them, make them go away so that breast cancer patients don’t have to look over their shoulder and don’t have to worry about that phone call 5, 10, 15 years down the road telling them their breast cancer is back.”
In his published findings, Ghajar found when just chemotherapy was performed on the tested mice, cancer returned more than 70 percent of the time. However, when Ghajar’s combo therapy was used, the cancer returned just 22 percent of the time.
“Am I hopeful? Yes. Twenty years ago, my prognosis as a HER2-positive patient was probably the worst,” said Pollastro. “And now it’s probably the best because of this drug and without research we wouldn’t have it.”
Ghajar said the next step is taking these laboratory findings into the clinic. He believes human trials could begin in 3-5 years.