In October 2015, thanks to a clinical trial, a Froedtert & MCW patient was among the first in the world to respond to a promising new cancer drug called ADCT-301. ADCT-301 shows potential for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma.
“The drug is a combination of an antibody with a poison for cancer attached to it. When the cancer cell digests the antibody, the antibody releases its poison,” said Mehdi Hamadani, MD, a hematologist/oncologist and director of the Froedtert & MCW Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, who is leading the clinical trial.
Patients from across the Midwest have traveled to Froedtert Hospital to access ADCT-301 and a similar drug called ADCT-402, which was studied in another clinical trial (now closed) for its potential in treating patients with another type of cancer called B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“Such interesting compounds are being tested for the first time in humans, which is the focus of these early phase trials,” Dr. Hamadani said.
Tomorrow’s Treatments Today
These studies are among the 150 cancer clinical trials open on average within the Froedtert & MCW Cancer Network at any given time, with an average of 450 adult clinical trials in process at any time. Early phase trials are managed through the Nicholas Family Foundation Translational Research Unit (TRU) in the Clinical Cancer Center at Froedtert Hospital.
“Translational research is the process of bringing scientific discoveries from the laboratory to the patient clinic,” said James Thomas, MD, PhD. “We often call it ‘going from bench to bedside.’” Dr. Thomas is a hematologist/oncologist and director of the TRU and the Froedtert & MCW Clinical Trials Office.
Specifically, translational research refers to early tests conducted among smaller numbers of patients. These “phase I” and “phase II” clinical trials help physicians understand how a new drug works within a patient population, for instance, to determine correct dosing or to discover potential side effects. For patients who have exhausted standard treatment options, early-phase research may represent the only option for moving forward. For these individuals, the TRU could provide a unique opportunity.
“In reality, there are few units like this across the country,” Dr. Thomas said. “The TRU is one of only about a dozen similar clinics in the United States.”
More Targets, More Tests
Translational research has long been a cornerstone of medical progress, but it has become increasingly important with the recent explosion of “targeted” cancer drugs.
“We have learned much more about what makes cells cancerous, and what makes different cancers unique,” Dr. Thomas said. “Targeted drugs are designed to block certain pathways, so we need to find out whether a drug is able to ‘flip the switch off.’ Ultimately, we want to find out whether a drug can shrink cancer and stop it.”
Specialized Facilities and Staff
The TRU is located in the Day Hospital, a state-of-the-art environment for patients receiving chemotherapy and other infused treatments in the Clinical Cancer Center. The TRU features five dedicated research beds, with the ability to flex into several more. It also includes a small lab for processing research samples. The TRU’s dedicated nursing and research staff know the trial protocols and are committed to clinical investigation.
“Conducting trials in a dedicated space with experienced research staff is the best way to go,” Dr. Thomas said. “The TRU enables us to conduct clinical trials in a cost-effective, expedient, safe manner and ensures we learn the most from every patient.”
Since the TRU opened in 2013, it has seen more than 500 patients, accounting for more than 6,000 visits. Learning from patients is the key to moving forward. Many clinical trials examine new ways to use standard therapies.
“Every day, we know more about what makes cancer tick,” Dr. Thomas said. “Our challenge now is to use translational research to turn that knowledge into better clinical outcomes for patients.”
Learn more about cancer research and clinical trials.