Encouraging findings for breast cancer blood test highlight promise of research consortium

Encouraging findings for breast cancer blood test highlight promise of research consortium

May 01, 2017
By Matt Windsor
A successful Phase 2 clinical trial of the cMethDNA blood test could lead to a quick way to evaluate the efficacy of cancer treatment. Catalyzing these crucial studies is the purpose of the Translational Breast Cancer Research Consortium.

A simple blood test that checks for chemical changes in the genes of circulating cancer cells could offer valuable clues to a patient's prognosis, according to a clinical trial conducted at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and six other prestigious cancer centers nationwide. The test could prove even more valuable as a quick way to evaluate the efficacy of cancer treatment.

mix foreroThe cMethDNA test could lead to a rapid indicator of treatment efficacy. "Currently, we may have to wait months to tell if a therapy is effective for a patient," says UAB oncologist Andres Forero, M.D. "You don't want to waste time in cancer treatment."

"This is an important finding," says Andres Forero, M.D., professor of hematology/oncology and senior scientist in the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and director of UAB's Breast Cancer Program, who led the UAB arm of the study. "Currently, we may have to wait months to tell if a therapy is effective for a patient, and if you have to wait for three months before you know it doesn't work, the tumor may get three times bigger. You don't want to waste time in cancer treatment."

Related story:
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The study included 129 women with advanced breast cancer. Researchers analyzed the patients' blood with a test known as cMethDNA, developed by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, which looks for signs of hypermethylation in cancer-suppressor genes. Hypermethylation tends to silence these genes, and is thought to be a sign that cancer growth is increasing and that a patient's disease has worsened. 

In a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology on Nov. 21, 2016, the researchers reported that median progression-free survival was 2.1 months for the 71 patients with high levels of hypermethylated cancer DNA in their blood, compared with 5.8 months for 57 patients who had low levels on the cMethDNA test.

These findings will need to be validated in larger trials, Forero notes. But the results themselves are a validation of a larger research project: a combined effort by leading cancer centers to increase the number of crucial phase II clinical trials.

mix cmethdna hopkinsThe cMethDNA test. Image courtesy of Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

The cMethDNA study was made possible by the Translational Breast Cancer Research Consortium (TBCRC), which was founded by UAB and six other institutions in 2005. It now includes 19 clinical sites dedicated to "innovative, high impact, biologically-driven translational and clinical research," according to the TBCRC website, and there are currently more than a dozen clinical trials ongoing. "There was a real need to support phase II trials," which make the critical connection between early developmental research and the big phase III trials that lead to FDA approval for new treatments, Forero explains.

"This has become a very important research group," he adds. "There have been 45 trials, and five of these were based on UAB science, which is amazing when you consider that our projects are competing for selection with the best in the world. It's really an amazing group of cancer experts who have come together, and that allows patients here in Alabama to have access to these potentially transformative therapies much earlier than they would otherwise."

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