Advancing cancer research and treatment with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

The partnership between the Catholic Health Foundation and Dana-Farber was born years ago and has continued to serve both entities

Sometimes two organizations meet at the intersection of opportunity and mission and the result is nothing short of pure benefit to both. Such is the case with the partnership of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) and the Catholic Health Foundation (CHF). The former has been leading the world in life-changing cancer research and patient care for 75 years. The latter provides financial support to organizations like DFCI, leaders in the areas of health care and research. Together, these two institutions create possibility and offer real hope to cancer patients.

The partnership between the Catholic Health Foundation and Dana-Farber was born years ago and has continued to serve both entities well. DFCI is committed to providing the best treatment possible to adults and children with cancer while simultaneously developing the most effective treatments and moving the world toward a cure. The Institute’s clinicians and scientists disseminate innovative therapies and scientific discoveries in order to reduce the impact of cancer in communities. The Catholic Health Foundation has given DFCI important financial support to help early career researchers in the field of breast cancer to aid in the conduct of their novel investigations.

“CHF has funds endowed for the purpose of providing support for causes related to cancer,” says Lynne Sullivan, CHF Executive Director. “We are pleased to be able to support Dana Farber, an organization on the cutting edge of cancer research.”

At the forefront of that “cutting edge research” and innovation in breast cancer treatments is Adrienne Waks, MD. An early career breast cancer medical oncologist and clinical and translational investigator, Dr. Waks is the Principal Investigator of a clinical trial for patients with HER2-positive (HER2+) breast cancer. In a recent grant to Dr. Waks, CHF awarded critical support to her research to understand outcomes for patients with HER2+ breast cancer who received treatment through this clinical trial. HER2+ disease is a specific type of breast cancer defined by high levels of a protein called human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2) on the surface of breast cancer cells. This protein promotes the growth of cancer thus often making this subset more aggressive than other breast cancers. One in five  breast cancers is HER2+.

Currently, most patients with stage II-III HER2+ breast cancer receive preoperative treatment with chemotherapy plus HER2-targeted agents. Though breast imaging and physical examination are helpful, we still lack optimal strategies to understand which patients are responding adequately to a reduced chemotherapy regimen, and which patients instead require treatment intensification to prevent recurrence and achieve favorable long-term outcomes. Accordingly, a large percentage of patients are likely either over- or under-treated by a “one size fits all” regimen. Dr. Waks seeks to change this paradigm through the analysis of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA). ctDNA is made up of microscopic tumor genetic debris circulating in the blood, and can be sampled by a “liquid biopsy,” or a simple blood draw. Funding from CHF will be used to aid Dr. Waks as she explores the efficacy of using ctDNA as a tool to track response to preoperative medications administered to patients with early stage HER2+ breast cancer.

The potential impact of Dr. Waks’ research is tremendous and can result in the development of more effective medication treatments for people with HER2+ breast cancer. By tracking the way a tumor responds to treatment in the blood pre-surgery, this study could help clinicians find a way to give just enough treatment to reach an optimal response. Notably, this has many potential advantages which include: guiding tailored de-escalation (meaning sparing chemotherapy entirely in patients who might not need it to be cured of their tumor) as well as tailored escalation to more comprehensive combined therapy approaches for those who require more intensive treatment.  “I am honored to receive this funding from Catholic Health Foundation, which will help me develop more individualized and less invasive treatments for HER2+ breast cancer patients,” states Dr. Adrienne Waks. “I am hopeful this novel research can ultimately transform the trajectory of treatment of this disease for patients worldwide, and the Catholic Health Foundation’s partnership is pivotal to my investigations.”

For too long, cancer has dominated people’s emotional and physical well-being. Initiatives and efforts by Dr. Waks, the Division of Breast Oncology and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as a whole have given cancer a run for its money- toward a finish line the entire world would like to reach.     

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