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Translating Research Into Saving Lives



Head and neck cancer is a brutal disease.

It affects some of the body’s most important functions: speaking, eating and breathing, says Sanford physician scientist John Lee, M.D. For years, this type of cancer has also had very poor survival rates.

“When you lose the ability to eat or speak, your life cannot go on as normal,” says Dr. Lee, principal investigator of several head and neck cancer research studies, whose goal is to improve survival rates with this very difficult type of cancer. “We’ve got to find better therapies and better ways for people to survive this.”

Better outcomes

A quality assurance study led by Dr. Lee, a Sanford Clinic Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, has shown that a multi-specialty team that implemented findings from the Sanford Head and Neck Cancer basic science lab improved the 40-month survival rate of patients at Sanford by greater than 20 percent. “Working together with a full team - meeting weekly to review all aspects of patient care - helps patients survive; however, we can do better to improve survival during therapy and make therapy not so harmful,” says Dr. Lee.

For over a decade, Dr. Lee and his team of researchers have been looking into the link between the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and the development of head and neck cancers. What the scientists discovered was that using drugs to alter cancer cell metabolism allowed mice to respond better to cancer therapy. They found that factors that enhanced the immune system seemed to improve rates of survival.

“We’re doing ground-breaking research and have already translated that into improved survival using our multi-specialist team; however, we can do better. This clinical trial will potentially improve treatment by making it less toxic and at the same time improve survival rates,” says Dr. Lee.

Studying the science

Sanford initiated a clinical trial last year to test whether these results would be the same for human patients, Dr. Lee said. Patients who enrolled in the clinical treatment received the best-practice treatments for head and neck cancer, and some also received a drug called dichloroacetate (DCA), which is commonly used for metabolic disorders.

That drug inhibits an enzyme called pyruvate dehyrogenase kinase (PDK) which is involved in metabolic pathways at the cellular level. Patients were given best-practice treatments for head and neck cancer, and some were given DCA in addition, to determine if the drug changed survival rates and immune response levels.

So far, the study has shown that DCA affects lactate production in cells. Lactate, also known as lactic acid, has been shown to help tumors grow. When DCA treatment was combined with chemotherapy and radiation, the cells had less lactate production and a stronger response to the cancer treatment.

Sanford researchers have presented the results of their work thus far and will continue their research to find more methods to improve patient response to cancer treatment, said Dr. Lee. A multi-disciplinary approach that includes drug therapy, radiation, chemotherapy and even nutrition seems to be affecting patient outcomes, he said.

A link for patients

Every day head and neck cancer patients benefit from Sanford Cancer’s team approach, which brings together specialists from a variety of disciplines to craft an individualized plan for each specific case, Dr. Lee said. Medical staff at Sanford Cancer understand that they need to work together to provide the highest level of care.

“When you use the best treatments and you have patients with a motivated attitude to get better, you will get this kind of response,” says the researcher, who also sees and treats patients every day. “Our patients benefit from having clinical researchers as part this larger team that is planning their treatment and invested in their care.”

Taking those scientific advances and using them at the bedside to directly improve the lives of patients, is the reason that Dr. Lee does the work he does, he said.

“We’re not just interested in doing research, but in bringing these treatments as efficiently as we can to people,” said Dr. Lee. “We’re dedicated to helping our patients have the highest quality of life, finding ways to tie medical research and treatments together for the people we serve.”

Posted Date: August 2012

Translating Research Into Saving Lives

Sanford Health research into treatments for head and neck cancers are improving survival rates among patients by almost 20 percent. Learn how cutting-edge science is giving Sanford patients some of the best cancer care available.