Geisinger clinical trials help find next generation of cancer treatment
Diagnosed with one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer in July 2011, Kim Byriel is thankful the tumor started growing when it did.
The Mountaintop resident knows that sounds odd, but Byriel, 43, but recent advances in cancer research have likely extended his life longer than what might have possible if he had received the diagnosis a decade ago.
People with his condition, a form of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme, have a 50 percent chance of living more than 14 months. Between 5 and 15 percent of people with the cancer live longer than five years.
After receiving his diagnosis, Byriel searched on the Internet for types of treatments and learned about Novacure, a new technology that uses electrodes to slow the growth of cancerous cells, and sometimes reduce their size.
Geisinger Health System is one of a handful of institutions conducting experimental trials of Novacure in the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration has approved Novacure for use when tumors are recurring, but it's still under consideration for treatment of patients with an initial diagnosis of brain cancer.
Bryiel is among the 84 patients enrolled in clinical cancer research trials this year in the Geisinger Health System. While many patients participate in trials at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, others get treatment at facilities in Wilkes-Barre, State College and Hazleton. Eventually, some Geisinger researchers say cancer clinical trials could begin at Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton.
Geisinger has participated in cancer clinical trials since the 1980s and is one of two organizations in the state doing research funded by the Community Clinical Oncology Program, part of the National Cancer Institute.
Byriel wears electrodes on his head for 21 hours each day, which he considers a minor inconvenience if it helps extend his life. He spends time with his two sons, ages 11 and 13, and coaches his youngest son's basketball team.
After just more than a year in the Geisinger program, Bryiel believes he stands a good chance of living longer than had he not volunteered for the trial. Extending his life - even by another year or two - may be just enough time for scientists to find better ways to fight the cancer.
"Every time you extend a year or two years, there's a lot going on right now with research," he said.
Edward Gorak, D.O., a hematologist and medical oncologist at Geisinger who leads the clinical cancer research, said studying new types of treatment is necessary. He and other researchers point out that all standard forms of treatment started off as experimental.
Only a small percentage of cancer patients in Northeast Pennsylvania participate in research - about 4 to 5 percent, mirroring the national trend.
"Some of this is because we don't have research studies available for each patient," Dr. Gorak said. "Some of it is a lack of awareness from the patient or the doctor."
Currently, Geisinger cancer clinical studies have 125 openings for adults and 14 for children. These include trials for leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, sarcoma and breast, bladder, prostate, pancreatic, colon, renal and gynecological cancers.
Dr. Gorak said doctors recruit patients who may be a good fit for the trials and sometimes receive calls from patients interested in volunteering. While no researcher or doctor can claim the clinical trials can definitely help cancer patients participating, these tests have already passed rigorous evaluation.
"I always use the caveat that the patient may benefit," Dr. Gorak said. "They'll certainly benefit future patients."
Dr. Gorak said the "overwhelming majority" of clinical studies do not use placebos, although some tests require them.
Kathleen Zahorsky, 77, of Bear Creek, was diagnosed with breast cancer in May of 2010. After two surgeries, she agreed to participate in a clinical trial while also undergoing chemotherapy. After the test, Zahorsky learned she was part of a placebo test group. Even so, the mother of six daughters said she was happy to play a part in the search for a cure.
"I was thrilled that I might participate in something that may help bring an end to the cancer epidemic," she said. "I'll do anything that I can to help."
With no indication of having a recurrence of breast cancer, Zahorsky continues to take medication and receives regular checkups from her doctor.
As a physician who sees many patients with brain tumors, including Michel Lacroix, M.D., director of the Brain and Spine Tumor Institute in the Geisinger Health System, said medicine and technological advances have greatly improved the odds of surviving cancer.
"When I started training 20-something years ago, people living for nine months was unheard of," he said. "One of our goals is to transform a terrible disease into something manageable, like a chronic disease."
After a brain tumor went away in August of 2011, another grew in a different part of Byriel's brain in May. His most recent checkup showed no sign of a tumor.
"We can say at this point that his tumor is under control," Dr. Lacroix said.
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