After exhausting the available treatments for a recurrence of her breast cancer, Sandy Fehrman wondered what would happen next.
Would another treatment be found in time for the cancer that had spread to her lungs, liver and bones? Would she even survive?
That’s when her doctor suggested targeted therapy. A sample of her tumor was sent across the country for analysis, and a new list of drugs aimed specifically at her tumor was produced.
Three years later, Fehrman is doing well. And the approach used to treat her has been parlayed into the new Institute for Translational Oncology Research at Greenville Hospital System, which hopes to expedite drug development and foster advanced cancer care.
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Unveiled Tuesday, the center will focus on therapies which match the treatment to the patient, said Dr. Joe Stephenson, the institute’s medical director.
And by partnering with pharmaceutical companies, University of South Carolina researchers, private industry and the government, it hopes to halve the cost and time of bringing a new drug to market – now estimated at about $1 billion and eight to 10 years, he said.
"Through ITOR, we will be able to make new therapies accessible to patients far more quickly than traditional models have allowed," he said. "This should give great hope to cancer patients."
Sam Konduros, ITOR business development director and former CEO of the economic development organization Upstate SC Alliance, said the center will be a catalyst for innovation that also will impact the region’s economy.
"ITOR represents a new era of translational medicine that will positively impact cancer patients’ lives in Upstate South Carolina, while also accelerating the development of a knowledge economy in the health care and biomedical realms for our region and state," he said.
It will help train medical professionals in translational and personalized medicine as well, GHS CEO Michael Riordan said.
Tuesday’s unveiling was the last piece of a puzzle that’s been in the works for five years, Stephenson said.
Doctors hope to take a sample of a patient’s tumor and find out which trial would be of most benefit as well as determine why one patient responds to a drug and another doesn’t, he said. They also hope to identify new biomarkers that will lead to more targeted therapies.
The goal is to improve outcomes today and hopefully eradicate cancer in the future, he said.
"We’re tired of doing business as usual," he said. "If you can take somebody from a 20 percent response rate to an 80 percent response rate, that’s so gratifying."
And it makes all the difference to the patient.
Fehrman, 62, was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in 1992 and underwent lumpectomy, then a bilateral mastectomy, and six months of chemotherapy. In 2003, the cancer returned, and by 2007, she had run out of treatment options.
"We were starting to wonder what we could do that could keep me alive," she said.
Then researchers profiled her tumor and found the drugs to target her specific cancer, offering her new hope. In three years, her tumor marker is within normal range, she said.
"It’s amazing," she said. "I’ve lived seven years, which is a remarkably long time for a stage 4 cancer patient. And...there’s no reason to think I’m going to die any time soon."
Fehrman knows she will be on treatment the rest of her life. But with new developments on the horizon, and close by at the institute, she is optimistic about her future.
"Not that I never had hope at the end of the list," she says, "but I have even more hope now that new drugs will be developed to benefit me."