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Targeted therapies offer hope for a hard-to-treat cancer

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Diane Fouts thought she had a bad cold.

It was the spring of 2015, and she had a cough that just wouldn’t go away. She went to see her doctor, who ordered a CT scan. The results were far more serious than a cold. Diane had lung cancer. She is not a smoker; in fact, she has never smoked.

She had surgery to relieve pressure from fluid around her lungs and heart caused by the cancer. While she was still recovering in the hospital, she began treatment. Luckily, Diane was able to avoid chemotherapy infusions. “I had the right mutation so I could have this targeted therapy as opposed to regular chemotherapy,” she says.

Diane began taking a pill every day. At first, her response to the drug was incredible. “Within the first six months they were telling me, look how much your lungs have cleared out! The CT scan was down to almost nothing visible,” Diane says. But just six months later, one of the areas that remained began to expand again. Her cancer had developed a resistance to the drug.

Trudy Oliver, PhD, is a principal investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). She’s researching lung cancers like Diane’s. She says, “Mutations in epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) are commonly found in non-smoking types of cancer. It drives a high level of signal which tells the cells to grow, divide, and spread.”

Oliver says these kinds of tumors can actually change their state and become more like a smoking-associated cancer after being targeted with certain therapies. She adds that understanding why these molecular changes happen is key in fighting lung cancer. “We’re looking for a therapeutic window that will let us try to stop those processes,” she says. “We may even be able to direct the cancer cells to change so they will respond to treatments that are already available.”

Diane switched to a second type of targeted therapy In August. She says most days she feels like she never was sick. She admits needing to make some adjustments to continue doing the things she loves, like African dance. “My little backpack that I used to take hiking is just the right size to hold a small oxygen tank,” she says. “I rigged it up so that I can wear my oxygen on my back. Dance class is the only time I need it these days.”

Diane says she’s grateful every day for the research being done at HCI and ready to keep living her life. She says, “I don't think of it as a fight. I just like living. I like what I'm doing.”

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit www.huntsmancancer.org.

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