Research featuring UK scientists shows promise in treating cancer

A new study published in Nature Chemical Biology featuring UK research highlights a promising new way to address lung cancer and other deadly diseases.

Lung cancer accounts for 25 percent of cancer deaths in the U.S., and one out of every two patients diagnosed with lung cancer won’t survive more than one year. The problem is at its worst in Kentucky, where the state continues to lead the nation in lung cancer incidence and death.

The new research brings together scientists from the UK College of Pharmacy, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and reveals a new way to treat lung cancer by blocking cancer-causing proteins on a cellular level. The study involves a compound developed by UK College of Pharmacy Dean Kip Guy’s lab.

The foundation for research

The groundwork for the study began more than 10 years ago when Dr. Bhuvanesh Singh, a physician-scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, identified that an increase of a protein called DCN1 led to more malignant lung cancers and shorter life spans for his patients. Of the patients he studied, those with high levels of DCN1 succumbed to the disease more quickly than those with normal levels.

Frustrated by their findings, Singh’s team set out to study the specifics of DCN1. While DCN1 is a normally occurring protein, his team found that too much of it leads directly to cancer formation. Simply put, a malignant tumor was formed when the amount of DCN1 in a cell was increased. Thus, patients with more DCN1 got sick more quickly and died faster than their counterparts.

Efforts in Brenda Schulman’s lab at St. Jude, led by biochemist Daniel Scott, established how DCN1 interacts with other proteins and controls cellular processes. Their key discovery used X-ray crystallography to show that a small modification of the partner protein to DCN1, known as UBE2M, was required for DCN1 to work. This common modification, N-terminal acetylation, had not previously been shown to be critical to controlling activity of this specific protein. Recognizing the potential for targeting this modification, Shulman reached out to form a collaboration between the three laboratories.

Their goal: to develop a way to stop DCN1 from killing patients.

‘Jamming the lock’

Understanding the behavior and function of DCN1 was far more ambitious than running simple tests. It was a significant step forward in understanding how proteins within a cell work.

Building upon the science from Shulman’s team, Jared Hammill from Guy’s lab and Danny Scott from Schulman’s lab worked to stop the interactions of DCN1 altogether. If DCN1’s activity depended on this interaction, then it stood to reason they could create a compound to intervene and stop the interaction from happening.

Guy describes the interaction as a “lock and key model.” Scientists have a blank key – which is UBE2M – and a lock, which is DCN1. The key wants to fit into the lock, so it’s modified until it fits. This modification process is N-terminal acetylation.

“What’s the significance?” Guy said. “Well, we’re the first people to show that protein interaction controlled by N-terminal acetylation can be blocked. We’re essentially jamming the lock with a compound so the key won’t fit.”

The items jamming that lock are a series of small molecules created in the lab. When the molecules were tested directly in cancer cells, they worked. They effectively blocked DCN1 from binding to UB2EM. After decades of collaborative research, there was finally a barrier between lock and key.

What it means for patients

The impact of these findings for healthcare and lung cancer patients specifically could be profound.

“We are excited about the implications of this research, which offer us a meaningful solution for addressing diseases like cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and infection,” Shulman said. “It’s exciting to collaborate with so many complementary groups of expertise and to watch how Dr. Scott and Dr. Hammill led the team. This research opens many new doors for us.”

The collaboration between these three labs could mean relief to many of those suffering from a variety of diseases.

“To have spent decades on this research and have such promising results is truly exhilarating,” Singh said. “At the end of the day, what matters most is improving health outcomes for our patients. This work represents a very important step towards developing a new approach to treat the most difficult of cancers and hopefully increase cure rates.”

This research was funded in part by National Institutes of Health, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities.


Next steps:

men's health month

Men, now’s the time to fine-tune your health

June is Men’s Health Month, which means it’s the perfect time to take a look at what men of all ages can do to live a heathier lifestyle.

From keeping your heart healthy to being proactive about cancer screenings, here’s what you can do to be the healthiest version of yourself:

  • Know your family’s medical history. Knowing your family’s health story can give you insight into what preventive actions you can take in order to stay healthy. Genetics can play a role in your risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s, some cancers and osteoporosis. Check out a blog by UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute’s Dr. Gretchen Wells for more about the benefits of knowing your family’s health history.
  • Be proactive about cancer screening. Regular cancer screenings can help catch early signs of the disease and find treatment options. The American Cancer Society recommends most men get regular screenings for prostate, lung and colon cancers at age 50. If you have a family history of cancer, talk with your healthcare provider about when you should start regular screenings.
  • Exercise regularly. Staying active will help to maintain a healthy weight, and it can also help reduce high blood pressure, high blood sugar and cholesterol. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity five times a week. Something as simple as a brisk walk or bike ride with a friend will work wonders for your overall health. Don’t know where to start? Check out our five-step guide to beginning a new exercise routine.
  • Stop smoking. Toxins in cigarettes can damage your lungs and can lead to lung cancer. Your heart takes a beating, too. If you do smoke, now’s the time to quit. Check out our guide for finally kicking your smoking addiction.
  • Talk to someone. Depression affects more than 6 million men in the U.S. Men are less likely to talk about how they are feeling, but it is important to know warning signs of depression and ways to find help and treatment. Learn more about the symptoms of depression and what you can do if you or a loved one needs help.
  • Don’t put off regular healthcare visits. You may feel perfectly healthy and not see the need to go to the doctor, but it is important to make sure you see a healthcare provider regularly. Some medical issues, like high blood sugar and high cholesterol, may not have any early symptoms, but a physician can provide diagnosis and treatment.
  • Stay social. If you’re having trouble sticking to a health regimen or just want some help in staying healthy, ask your friends and family join in on your new journey to a healthier life. You’re more likely to stick to your healthy lifestyle if you have support and others that can hold you accountable for your actions.

Although June is Men’s Health Month, it is important to remember that your health matters all year long. By making these simple lifestyle changes, you can have a lasting, positive impact on your health.


Next steps:

Markey extends cancer network to Prestonsburg

Highlands Regional Medical Center in Prestonsburg, Ky., has announced a new affiliation with the UK Markey Cancer Center, the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.

By becoming a UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network member, Highlands Regional Medical Center will now be able to offer more patients in Eastern Kentucky access to additional specialty and subspecialty care, including clinical trials and advanced technology, while allowing them to stay in their region for most treatments.

The UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network supports UK HealthCare’s overall mission of ensuring no Kentuckian will have to leave the state to get access to top-of-the-line healthcare.

“UK HealthCare doesn’t just serve Lexington and Central Kentucky – our mission is to provide all Kentuckians with the best possible care right here in the state,” said Dr. Michael Karpf, UK executive vice president for health affairs. “The Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network allows us to collaborate with community hospitals to provide top-notch cancer care much closer to home – saving both travel expenses and time for the patients, in addition to keeping them close to their personal support system.”

Highlands Regional Medical Center is a not-for-profit, community-owned and operated hospital established to serve Floyd, Johnson, Martin and Magoffin counties by providing high-quality health services and other community resources that will develop a healthier community.

“Affiliating with the UK Markey Cancer Center opens the door to numerous resources for our hospital and community,” said Harold C. Warman Jr., president and chief executive officer at Highlands Regional Medical Center. “Our staff will benefit from continued education opportunities, our community will benefit from health promotion and access to the most recent community-based cancer care, and our doctors will have access to the latest in cancer care professional education. Markey is a national leader in cancer research and care, and we are grateful for our association.”

The UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network was created to provide high-quality cancer care closer to home for patients across the region, and to minimize the effects of cancer through prevention and education programs, exceptional clinical care and access to research.

“Navigating cancer treatment can be challenging for patients and their families,” said Dr. Swaty Arora, medical oncologist/hematologist at Highlands Regional Medical Center. “At Highlands, our goal is to provide standard-of-care treatment in a timely and cost-effective manner. This affiliation validates our intention to provide quality care and affords access to resources to optimize patient care.”

The UK Markey Cancer Center is one of only 69 medical centers in the country to earn an NCI cancer center designation. Because of the designation, Markey patients have access to new drugs, treatment options and clinical trials offered only at NCI centers.

Moving forward, the UK Markey Cancer Center is working toward the next tier of designation – an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center. Currently, 45 of the 69 NCI-designated cancer centers in the country hold a comprehensive cancer center status. The UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network will play a large role in bringing that next level of cancer funding to Kentucky.

“Kentucky is home to some of the worst cancer rates in the country,” said Dr. Timothy Mullett, medical director of the UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network. “Collaborating with our affiliate hospitals across the state will enable us to make a positive impact on the dire cancer rates here in the Commonwealth.”

The UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network began in 2006 and comprises 17 hospitals across the state of Kentucky. Learn more.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Next steps:

  • Learn more about the UK Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network, which gives people across Kentucky access to high-quality cancer services and programs through collaboration with community hospitals.
  • Markey is Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center, providing world-class cancer care right here in the Commonwealth. Learn more about why patients choose Markey for their cancer treatment.
Expressions of Courage

Cancer survivors celebrate life at Markey’s Expressions of Courage

When Sarah Lister spent more than four months as an inpatient in the UK Markey Cancer Center Blood & Marrow Transplant Program, it was the creative endeavors Markey offered that kept her upbeat and motivated. From music therapy to yoga to narrative medicine, she participated in everything that came her way.

“All the integrative therapies they offer here are definitely worth taking up,” said Lister, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in early January 2016. “I was up for all of it.”

Last Friday, Lister came back to Markey – this time as a grateful survivor – to enjoy the artistic endeavors of others at the cancer center’s annual Expressions of Courage celebration.

Expressions of Courage is an art exhibit showcasing original, artistic expressions connected in some way to an experience with a cancer diagnosis, or crafted by or in memory of a Markey patient whose battle has ended. Survivors and their loved ones are invited to participate in the yearly event, which is held every June in honor of National Cancer Survivorship Month.

This year’s event featured visual arts, musical performances, literary readings and more from more than 50 participants, and a record crowd of more than 375 attendees. After welcoming remarks from Markey Director Dr. Mark Evers, the celebration kicked off with a musical storytelling performance from cancer survivor and singer/songwriter Charlie Lustman, who travels the country to share stories of his battle with osteosarcoma.

“I’m here because I was left on this planet longer to do this, which is sing songs about surviving cancer at cancer centers all over America and the world,” Lustman said. “To cut the edge off the fear and the unknown for people touched by this who don’t understand it, and to bring it to them with songs, because music helps with the healing.”

Lister sat right in the front row for the performances, applauding and cheering on everyone who approached the microphone.

“This is a day I never knew existed because I didn’t have to before,” she said. “But I’m so grateful that it does and that I get to be a part of it. And you bet I’m going to cheer for everyone. It takes guts to do this!”

Though Lister didn’t submit a piece for the event this year, she says she has plans to do a literary reading from her narrative medicine journal at next year’s celebration. Her journal entailed personal anecdotes from her time as an inpatient at Markey, including the sometimes-rough process of undergoing a bone marrow transplant.

As she sat in the Markey courtyard, surrounded by friends, food, music and sunshine, Lister said the patients in isolation in Markey’s third floor BMT inpatient unit were never far from her mind.

“I kept looking up at the third floor as I listened to people singing and being joyous and celebrating,” Lister said. “I want those people to be sitting in these chairs next year. … This whole day, it’s just a miracle to be here.”

Check out the video below for highlights from this year’s Expressions of Courage event, including an interview with musician Charlie Lustman.


Next steps:

  • Learn more about the Markey Survivorship Clinic, a specialized program just for cancer survivors that offers support and resources to help navigate the often-overwhelming aspects of life after treatment.
  • Markey is Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center, providing world-class cancer care right here in the Commonwealth. Learn more about why patients choose Markey for their cancer treatment.
Before heading outside this summer, make sure you and your family follow all of our sun protection tips. These steps can help prevent skin cancer.

Don’t get burned – here’s how to protect your skin in the sun

It only takes 15 minutes in the sun to damage your skin.

Before you head outside to enjoy the warm weather and sunshine, here’s what you need to know to protect your skin.

Sunscreen

Sunscreens are assigned a sun protection factor (SPF) number that rates their effectiveness in blocking ultraviolet (UV) rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. You should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15, even on cool or slightly cloudy days.

Broad-spectrum on a product’s label means the sunscreen filters out ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation exposure. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are mostly responsible for premature aging and skin cancer. UVB rays affect the surface of the skin and cause sunburn.

Don’t forget to put a thick layer of sunscreen on all parts of exposed skin. Get help for hard-to-reach places like your back. Here are some additional things to keep in mind when using sunscreen:

  • Sunscreen wears off. Put it on again if you stay in the sun for more than two hours and after swimming, sweating or toweling off.
  • Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, but its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures. Be sure to check your sunscreen’s expiration date.
  • Some makeup and lip balms contain some of the same chemicals used in sunscreens. If they don’t have at least SPF 15, don’t use them by themselves.

Avoid peak sun

Try not to schedule outdoor activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Shade

You can reduce your risk of skin damage and skin cancer by seeking shade under an umbrella, tree or other shelter. Even when you are in shade, be sure to protect your skin by using sunscreen or wearing protective clothing.

Clothing

Long-sleeved shirts, long pants and skirts can protect you from UV rays. Tightly woven fabrics offer the best protection. A wet T-shirt offers much less UV protection than a dry one, and darker colors protect more than lighter ones. Some clothing certified under international standards is specifically manufactured to provide UV protection.

If wearing this type of clothing isn’t practical, try to wear a T-shirt or a beach cover-up. Keep in mind that a typical T-shirt has an SPF rating lower than 15, so use other types of protection as well.

Hat

For the most protection, wear a hat with a brim all the way around that shades your face, ears and the back of your neck. Tightly woven fabric, such as canvas, works best to protect your skin from UV rays. Avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight through. A darker hat may offer more UV protection.

If you wear a baseball cap, you should also protect your ears and the back of your neck. Wear clothing that covers those areas, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen or stay in the shade.

Sunglasses

Sunglasses protect your eyes from UV rays and reduce the risk of cataracts. They also protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure.

Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays offer the best protection. Wrap-around sunglasses work best because they block UV rays from entering on the side.


Next steps:

cancer survivor

Markey clinic promotes quality of life for cancer survivors

This Sunday is National Cancer Survivors Day, an annual event that encourages those who have survived  cancer to celebrate milestones and supports patients and families currently going through treatment.

At the UK Markey Cancer Center, we have a specialized program just for cancer survivors that offers support and resources to help navigate the complicated and often-overwhelming aspects of life after treatment.

Cancer Survivorship Clinic

Even after treatment is complete, cancer can impact a patient’s physical, emotional, social and financial well-being. Our Cancer Survivorship Clinic is designed to help patients overcome those challenges by connecting their medical history with their future quality of life as a cancer survivor.

When a patient is referred to the Survivorship Clinic, they meet with a provider who specializes in survivorship care. That provider then works with the patient to customize a personalized plan that coordinates ongoing medical care and promotes the patient’s health and wellness moving forward.

Individual care plans address important aspects of patients’ continued care including long-term effects of treatment, diet and nutrition, emotional and psychological support, and social and financial concerns.

The Cancer Survivorship Clinics are located in the Whitney-Hendrickson Building and the Ben Roach Building at the UK Markey Cancer Center. If you have questions about our clinic or would like to make an appointment, please call us at 800-333-8874.

Expressions of Courage

Later this month, Markey and the Survivorship Clinic will host the annual Expressions of Courage event, a cancer survivor celebration timed to coincide with other nationwide celebrations in June for Cancer Survivorship Month.

Expressions of Courage honors the experiences of those who have battled cancer by displaying their art and creative expressions, many of which can be linked to their cancer experiences. This year’s event is scheduled from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on June 9 and will feature visual, literary, and musical performances from Markey cancer survivors as well as a free lunch and access to support services.

Learn more about Expressions of Courage and register for the event today.


Next steps:

  • Markey is Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center, providing world-class cancer care right here in the Commonwealth. Learn more about why patients choose Markey for their cancer treatment.
  • When her previous oncologist told Annette Osborne there was no hope, she came to Markey and found another chance at life. Read Annette’s story.
Annette Osborne, a cancer patient with not much time to live, was referred to a Markey physician. His innovative treatment allowed Osborne to keep living.

After grim prognosis, Winchester woman finds answers at Markey

For Annette Osborne, a cancer patient from Winchester, the prognosis was not good. Her oncologist had given up. “Enjoy the time you have left with your family, there’s nothing more we can do,” he told her.

But Osborne wasn’t ready to die, at least not without a fight. She wasn’t ready to give up on being there for her husband and children or watching her grandchildren grow up.

Initially, Osborne had ignored the symptoms that turned out to be cancer. She’d been caring for her ailing father, so it was easy to overlook her own aches and pains.

When she noticed abnormal bleeding, she saw her gynecologist, who said it was likely nothing to be concerned about, that it was probably a small tear that would heal on its own. When that didn’t happen, she went back for more tests. That was when she learned she had vaginal cancer.

After her oncologist told her to prepare to die, Osborne pushed back, and the doctor offered one more sliver of hope.

Dr. Jonathan Feddock at the UK Markey Cancer Center was doing some innovative treatment. Osborne seized her chance, and in early 2016, she met with Feddock to see if he could help her.

An uncommon approach

Feddock, an assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Medicine, was the only physician in the area providing a brachytherapy treatment known as permanent interstitial implants. Brachytherapy, a type of internal radiation therapy, uses radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. While brachytherapy is a common treatment option, the use of permanent seeds which, in Osborne’s case, were placed free-handed inside the vagina, were not.

According to Feddock, the general opinion among most oncologists is that once a patient develops a recurrence of their cancer and it is in a part of their body that has been radiated before, there is no curative treatment other than radical surgery. But access to an NCI-designated cancer center and physicians who conduct research on new treatment options is part of the reason Osborne is alive today.

And she is doing better than she could have ever imagined. She’s been able to watch one of her daughters become a mother and attend sleepovers with her granddaughter. “It’s the small things that I appreciate, like a beautiful spring day and the chance to enjoy the sun. This disease has taken so many people that I know; I take the chance to enjoy anything I can,” Osborne said.

Feddock has a positive outlook on her prognosis as well. “Our own results suggest that if there is no sign of cancer coming back after six months, then most women tend to do well,” he said. It’s been more than a year since Osborne’s treatment, Feddock continued, “so in her case, I am hopeful that this cancer is behind her.”

Looking toward the future

Osborne is excited for what the future could hold for her. A nurse by training, she’s interested in working with cancer patients when she returns to work. “I’ve been thinking about going back to the healthcare field; there may be more schooling in my future,” she said. Her experience as a patient who was told the end was near is something Osborne believes will make her a more empathetic healthcare provider.

Osborne has been back at the gym and preparing for her healthier life. She’s even excited to be training for her first 5K.

A referral to Dr. Feddock and an unwillingness to give up are what she credits for having the chance to enjoy the rest of her life, and that’s exactly what she plans to do.


Next steps:

  • Caring physicians, clinical trials and the power of advanced medicine all come together at the UK Markey Cancer Center to give patients the best treatment possible.
  • For many women, getting regular Pap smears could be the difference between catching cervical cancer early or discovering it late.
From soothing headaches to muscle aches, aspirin can be helpful for many. Now, a new study shows that regular aspiring use may reduce your risk for cancer.

Can regular aspirin use reduce your risk for cancer?

Written by Jill Kolesar, clinical pharmacologist and co-director of the UK Markey Cancer Center Molecular Tumor Board.

Jill Kolesar, PharmD, MS

Most of us have likely taken aspirin at some point in our lives for a common minor ailment like a headache, fever or muscle cramp. Research has also shown this drug to be an effective part of treatment for heart attacks and strokes.

But more recent research on aspirin suggests it may be beneficial in yet another way – by reducing the risk of developing and dying from several types of cancer, including colorectal, lung, breast and prostate cancers.

A new study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting analyzed aspirin use and cancer risk from more than 86,000 women over 32 years and nearly 44,000 men over 26 years. Ultimately, the study showed taking low dose (81 mg) aspirin for six or more years – from less than two tablets per week up to a tablet a day – was associated with a significant decrease in cancer risk, especially in colorectal cancers, where the reduction was 31 percent in women and 30 percent for men.

While this data is promising, we should keep in mind it is observational. That means this data does not prove aspirin reduces cancer risk, since it’s possible that people who took aspirin just had healthier habits overall.

But how does this simple, everyday medication work? It fights inflammation, the immune system’s response to disease or injury. Inflammation can destroy the “bad” bacteria or eliminate injured cells, and is usually temporary. Think about the redness and localized swelling that happens when we get a small cut or abrasion on our skin: that’s the result of the body responding to the threat of foreign bacteria and sending white blood cells to the injury to take care of the potential problem.

But when inflammation is chronic, lasting for months or even years due to injury or disease, it can become a perfect environment for many types of cancer cells to develop and thrive. By blocking the body’s ability to increase inflammation in the body, aspirin may help lower cancer risk or the spread of the disease.

Before you start taking aspirin, be aware that like any medication, using it comes with risks. The most common risks of regular aspirin use include an upset stomach, stomach ulcers and stomach bleeding. The risk for these side effects increases if you are older, drink alcohol regularly or take certain other medications.

In short, while regular aspirin use shows promise for reducing cancer risk, it may not be appropriate for everyone. If you’re concerned about your risk and wondering if you should try a regular aspirin regimen, speak with your doctor first. He or she can help you assess whether the benefits may outweigh the drawbacks in your case.


Next steps:

molecular tumor board

Watch: Our new TV spot highlights precision cancer care at Markey

Our new TV spot tells the exciting story of how the UK Markey Cancer Center is using precision medicine to target cancer treatment to patients’ unique cancer cells. Watch the video below and learn more about how we’re harnessing the power of advanced medicine to find the best treatment for each patient.

Treating cancer at the molecular level

The future of cancer treatment is fighting the disease at the level of an individual gene, breaking down a diagnosis by analyzing each patient’s unique genetic characteristics. At Markey, our Molecular Tumor Board is leading this fight, bringing personalized, precision medicine to patients across Kentucky.

The Molecular Tumor Board, which is made up of more than a dozen leading clinicians and scientists, meets monthly to review individual cancer cases from across the Commonwealth, diving deep into patients’ genetic information, then collectively tailoring a precision treatment specifically for them.

Tailoring a precision treatment

Dr. Jill Kolesar

Dr. Jill Kolesar

“It’s well accepted that cancer is chiefly a genetic disorder,” says Dr. Jill Kolesar, a founding member and co-director of Markey’s Molecular Tumor Board. “The first genome that was sequenced took 13 years and $2.7 billion dollars. Now we can sequence a genome in an afternoon.”

Such significant advances in technology have helped spur precision medicine, but have also created large quantities of genetic information, Kolesar said. It’s up to the Molecular Tumor Board to interpret that vast amount of data and apply it to an individual’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Dr. Susanne Arnold

Dr. Susanne Arnold

Medical oncologist Dr. Susanne Arnold, Markey’s associate director for clinical translation and member of the Molecular Tumor Board, is helping lead this individualized approach to cancer treatment. A precision approach to diagnosis and analysis is the future of care, she said.

“You take a biopsy and do the genomic analysis, called next-generation sequencing, which helps us understand exactly what happened with that cell that resulted in cancer,” she explained.

But what might sound like a routine test in modern medicine is much more remarkable in these particular cases.

“Molecular medicine is actually discovering the information about a unique cancer in a specific person at a precise point in time,” she said. “Pinpointing this allows us to understand why it happened, why our treatment did or didn’t work, and how we can potentially stop (the cancer).”

In short, these tests allow for a remarkably detailed understanding of what goes wrong in cancerous cells. And that sort of comprehensive knowledge helps the tumor board choose the best treatment from among the many options available at Markey.

How the molecular tumor board works

Markey’s Molecular Tumor Board is not the first of its kind, but it is the first in Kentucky. And that’s significant, given the unprecedented rates of cancer across the state, most notably in the rural, eastern parts of Kentucky.

With the board meeting twice monthly, oncologists across the state can reach out for a recommendation for therapy based on their patient’s molecular signature.

There are more than a dozen scientific specialties represented on the board, and more than 300 years of experience in total. All of this is applied to a single patient as cases are presented to the board, and the inclusion of each patient’s own physician in the process ensures an intimate understanding of that patient’s condition and outlook.

Each patient’s cancer will be tested for all genetic mutations that are known to cause cancer, regardless of what type of tumor the patient has. The tumor board then uses the results of that test to choose possible treatment options that target the genetic mutations. Each mutation is evaluated for FDA-approved therapies for the patient’s tumor type, FDA-approved off-label therapies and any clinical trials available related to the patient’s specific mutations.

Taking into consideration the available treatment options, the Molecular Tumor Board will make a recommendation based on the best possible outcome for the patient.

For a single patient, for all of Kentucky

As more tumor boards are established across the country and more cases are reviewed, a bank of information will be available to doctors to help them determine the best course of action for patients with similar cases.

“Everything we discover is designed to help you, and by sharing this information in an anonymous way, it can help people across the country suffering with cancer. We’re all being connected through this process, and that’s a beautiful, beautiful story to tell,” Arnold said. “Imagine you are ‘Anne’ from Pikeville, Kentucky, but behind you is your doctor, the Markey Cancer Center, other NCI-designated cancer centers, the National Cancer Institute … and ‘John’ in New York City, who has the same mutation as you. The six degrees of separation suddenly disappear, and ideally you each benefit from the experience of the other.”

Dr. Mark Evers

Dr. Mark Evers

That is the crux of Markey’s ambitions: an individualized approach to each patient, but on a large scale. In an open letter released at the end of 2016, Dr. Mark Evers, director of Markey, made public a goal of the organization: to significantly reduce cancer incidence and mortality across the state, and the region, by the year 2020. It’s a lofty aspiration, but initiatives like the Molecular Tumor Board position Markey for success.

As Kolesar said, “When researchers and clinicians at the Markey Cancer Center decide something is going to benefit patients, like the Molecular Tumor Board, they say, ‘Let’s do it.’”

This team spirit spans the entire organization. Kolesar noted the collegiality and support for accomplishing goals at UK HealthCare.

“Dr. Evers, says, ‘You just tell me what you need, and we’ll make it happen, because that’s what we think the patients of Kentucky need,’” she said.

Such sweeping change, especially when it comes to issues as complicated and extensive as healthcare, rarely happens quickly. But a series of small successes, over time, can have an enormous ripple effect. The experts who make up the Molecular Tumor Board understand this, and it’s their reason for participating in and offering their time to such programs.

“By understanding the genetic makeup of our patients and their tumors, we can then help to direct their therapy,” Evers said.

The future of advanced medicine

Treatment options at UK HealthCare are more abundant than ever before. The Early Therapeutics Clinical Trials Center focuses on increasing patient access to phase I and phase II clinical trials will also have a major impact for Markey patients.

“[Previously,] if patients in Kentucky needed an earlier-phase clinical trial, they would have to go out of state,” said Kolesar, explaining the advantage of the initiative.

These early-phase studies can offer patients new treatment avenues for cancers that have proved difficult to target using standard therapies. Essentially, it allows Markey to participate in the development of new and novel treatments while offering patients first access.

Being at the forefront of medicine means incredible discovery, but for every breakthrough, there are new unknowns. This uncharted territory is a product of advancement and a reason for optimism.

“Do we have a therapy for every gene that’s broken? No. But we do have therapies for genes that are broken in non-small cell lung cancer, melanoma, breast cancer, colon cancer and a growing list every day. They are defined by their gene signature and by the gene that’s broken. That’s called targeted therapy,” Arnold said.

The hope is that this sort of targeting can be applied to all types of cancer, and Markey’s patients could be among the first to benefit.

“The Power of Advanced Medicine” is more than a slogan. It’s a guiding principle and a reminder that UK HealthCare prioritizes discovery in the name of our patients.


Next steps:

  • Markey is Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center, providing world-class cancer care right here in the Commonwealth. Learn more about why patients choose Markey for their cancer treatment. For a second opinion or appointment, call Markey at 859-257-4488 or 866-340-4488 (toll free).
  • Learn more about the power of advanced medicine at UK HealthCare.
Meet the Researcher Day

UK cancer researchers welcome middle, high school students

Middle and high school students from across the region came to UK and UK HealthCare last week for an up-close look at what it’s like to be a cancer researcher.

“Meet the Researcher Day,” hosted by the UK Markey Cancer Center and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), is a field trip reward given to schools in the region that successfully raise more than $1,000 for the LLS’s Pennies for Patients campaign.

This year, students from Shelby County West Middle School, Mercer County Senior High School, Henry County Middle School and New Albany High School in Indiana won the opportunity to visit the Biomedical/Biological Sciences Research Building on UK’s campus and learn more about how the money they raised for Pennies for Patients will help further cancer research.

After an introduction by UK researchers Tianyan Gao and Craig Vander Kooi, the students received a tour of different cancer research labs and learned how to use basic lab equipment. The event also featured remarks from Dr. John D’Orazio, a pediatric oncologist and cancer researcher as well as LLS Honored Hero Brad Wilson, a UK chemical engineering student and two-time leukemia survivor. The students also heard a panel discussion about careers in science featuring D’Orazio and UK students Michael Gosky and Payton Stevens.

“I think it’s important that students get to see the lab spaces, meet the researchers and understand what the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Markey Cancer Center mission is: The cure for cancer,” said Shelia Gustafson, campaign director for the Kentucky and Southern Indiana Chapter of LLS.

Pennies for Patients is the annual fundraiser for the Student Series of the LLS. It encourages students to collect spare change during a three-week period early in the year. Funds raised support leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma research; patient and community service; public health education; and professional education.

For this year’s campaign, 485 schools across the region participated, raising more than $400,000 – a new record. The schools participating in Pennies for Patients had to raise a minimum of $1,000 to win the chance to attend Meet the Researchers Day. The four schools at Meet the Researchers Day this year were chosen in a random drawing, raising more than $10,000 combined for LLS.

Check out the video below for highlights from this year’s Meet the Research Day.


Next steps:

  • Learn more about clinical trials at Markey, which give patients access to the most up-to-date cancer research and innovations.
  • Markey is Kentucky’s only NCI-designated cancer center, providing world-class cancer care right here in the Commonwealth. Learn more about why patients choose Markey for their cancer treatment.