This story peaked our interest as it involves UM and a patient who helped work to find a cure 🙂
“Raili Kerppola had a thriving career in the pharmaceutical industry when she was diagnosed with stage four adrenal cancer in 2011.
While seeking treatment at the University of Michigan, she began working with an endocrinologist named Dr. Gary Hammer and her husband, a professor of biological chemistry at UM, on researching and discovering new treatments for the rare disease.
Kerppola died this June. But her legacy lives on through a VC-backed company called Atterocor, for which she is credited as a co-founder. The University of Michigan spinoff is conducting a Phase 1 clinical study of a drug that it hopes could prolong the lives of patients with adrenocortical carcinoma, and cause fewer toxic side effects, than the current treatment option.
It’s a rare form of cancer that carries a short life expectancy after diagnosis. That’s because it’s usually caught late-stage, when a patient presents with symptoms like unexplainable weight gain, hypertension, abdominal pain or other metabolic complications caused by excessive production of hormones by the adrenal glands.
Treatment starts with surgery, if the cancer is caught early enough. Then, doctors usually try to extend life with a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs including mitotane, a drug that reduces the amount of hormone produced by the adrenal cortex.
The problem? Mitotane, a derivative of the pesticide DDT, is terribly toxic. And its efficacy is questionable, too. Atterocor co-founder Julia Owens said the FDA approved the drug decades ago, before the agency required drugmakers to demonstrate that it works before approval. She said that although it likely does have some benefits for patients, they usually have to take multiple doses a day for three to four months before their mitotane levels reach a therapeutic range. Meanwhile, they’re usually also taking chemotherapy drugs.
“One endocrinologist recently told me that the way you can tell if a patient is getting close to efficacious mitotane levels is when they can’t walk down the hallway without assistance,” she said.
Atterocor says its compound is highly specific to the cells of the adrenal cortex, which is where the cancer occurs. “We haven’t done human trials yet so we can’t make any claims, but based on toxicity studies, our effect seems much more specific, much more rapid, with a better (pharmacokinetic) profile,” she explained.
It’s received orphan drug designation in the U.S. and in Europe. The company started a Phase 1 trial over the summer at MD Anderson Cancer Center and the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Owens said the company should have some data on tumor responses and steroid markers in the next six to 12 months.
With six employees, Atterocor is a small company, but it’s attracted some big-name investors. Last year the Ann Arbor startup reined in a $16 million Series A from Frazier Healthcare, Osage University Partners and 5AM Ventures.
Owens said that, for a company developing an orphan drug, that capital makes all the difference. “We can move this compound forward ourselves without being at the mercy of a big pharma company (partner),” she said. “We haven’t been around for two years yet and have taken this idea from the University of Michigan and run our toxicology studies, synthesize the drug and now are running the study. If we see encouraging results, we could go into a Phase 2 study and seek approval ourselves.”
You have to think that’s something Raili Kerppola would be proud of.”
Max Wicha, M.D., director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, reflects on the center’s first 25 years and what the future may hold.
How did the Cancer Center come about?
The idea actually started on a napkin. It began at a meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology — this was about 1985. At the time, I was the chief of the division of hematology/oncology and Dr. Allen Lichter was the chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology. We started talking about creating a cancer center at the U-M. We then got together with Dr. Raymond Ruddon, chairman of Pharmacology and one of the most renowned cancer researchers on the U-M faculty at the time. In these initial discussions, we sketched out on the back of a napkin how we might establish multidisciplinary cancer programs that would bring together basic scientists, clinical scientists, radiation oncologists and surgeons.
What was the vision?
The goal of a cancer center was to design better strategies to link cutting-edge research and clinical care, and in fact, that has remained our goal throughout the last 25 years. It’s both a challenge as well as a goal — inking research to patient care and putting together multidisciplinary teams of researchers and clinicians in the most efficient way to facilitate patient care and research.
Research and care weren’t integrated back then?
The U-M, in fact, does have a long-standing history of being a center for interdisciplinary research. However, in the field of cancer, much of the research, as well as cancer care, was fragmented. Most of the physicians and scientists were organized according to their departmental appointments. This sometimes accentuated a “silo” mentality that inhibited interdisciplinary research. The Cancer Center provided a structure to organize multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research between departments and schools at the university. We felt, and still believe, that this is a better way to advance research and patient care.
What was it like at the beginning of the Cancer Center?
When we started the Cancer Center, we were scattered throughout many buildings at the Medical Center and other schools in the university. There was, in fact, no Cancer Center building. We ran the administration of the center from a trailer behind the Simpson Memorial Institute. That was it — all we had was a trailer and a vision of what could be created in the future.
But even without a dedicated building, what was happening?
Even before we built the cancer center facility, we worked with Medical Center and departmental leaders to greatly expand the cancer research and treatment capabilities at the U-M. This included our recruitment of a number of stellar researchers, many of whom focused on moving basic research into the clinic. As a result our cancer program, which was unranked nationally, jumped into the top 20 over that decade. In fact, we have continued that trajectory and are now the No. 1 university-based cancer center in terms of National Cancer Institute grants to medical schools and No. 3 in the country for overall grants from NCI.
How is cancer research changing?
For much of the last 20 years, we thought that the most efficient way to organize cancer research was according to disease sites. We created research programs in each of these disease sites such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer and pancreas cancer. This greatly facilitated our interdisciplinary research. However, science continues to advance and we now find that there are many similarities between cancers in different organs at the molecular and genetic level. Our challenge is now to integrate research across multiple tumor types so that we can draw from the strengths of these programs and develop specific treatments that target genetic pathways in cancer.
What are some of the current challenges?
Despite the tremendous advances in cancer research, national funding for cancer research is actually declining. As a result, only 7 percent of grants submitted to the NCI are now funded. Our core grant which funds the Cancer Center infrastructure was successfully renewed for the sixth time last year. Despite receiving an “Outstanding” priority score, however, NCI budgetary constraints have resulted in a freeze of all cancer center budgets.
The tremendous increase in cancer research technology has also been expensive. These increased expenses and great opportunities occurring in a context of decreased NIH funding means that we need to identify additional sources for research funding. One of these sources is the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry. The Cancer Center has greatly expanded its interaction with these groups. This not only helps to support research, it helps to move discoveries into the clinic in an efficient manner. As an indication of this success, U-M Cancer Center investigators have spun-off 10 biotechnology companies, eight of which remain in Michigan. In addition to moving research forward, this helps to stimulate the local economy.
Another important source for funds to support research is philanthropy. We are privileged to have a loyal group of donors who have helped us develop our dream. We continue to work with the Health System to identify and work with major donors and in fact, to potentially attract a naming gift for the entire Cancer Center.
In the future, will oncologists be able to select a treatment based on the genetic mutations of each patient?
That is our hope. In fact, the Cancer Center is one of the leaders nationally at performing genetic analysis of individual tumors. The analyses have shown us that individual tumors may contain multiple mutations suggesting that successful cancer treatment may require the use of multiple targeted drugs. A good analogy of this is the treatment of AIDS. If you use a single drug against HIV, the virus rapidly becomes resistant. But if you use a cocktail of inhibitors, you can inhibit HIV growth turning AIDS into a chronic disease. That’s what we hope to accomplish with cancer treatment. Using a combination of molecularly targeted drug inhibitors, we can either eradicate cancer or at least make cancer a chronic disease.
The NCI’s most recent “Cancer Trends Progress Report” shows that the overall incidence and death rates for cancer are decreasing. Is there a danger that people will relax and say cancer is taken care of, let’s move on to something else?
It is true that we are making substantial progress in the treatment of cancer. However, we also are seeing an aging population and since cancer is more common as we age, this is leading to an increase in cancer incidence. As we continue to make progress in treating other major killers such as cardiovascular disease, cancer may become the No. 1 killer of Americans over the next decade. Furthermore, although we’ve made great progress in treating certain cancers, progress has been significantly more limited in the treatment of other cancers — and progress in the treatment of these cancers will depend on our continued research.
What are your dreams for the future of the Cancer Center in the next 25 years?
I would like the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center to be seen as the place where some of the crucial breakthroughs were made that led to improved outcomes for patients with cancer. We also would like U-M to continue to enhance its reputation as a preeminent center for holistic patient center care, as well as groundbreaking research.
Respectfully taken from University of Michigan’s website. To see original article, go to http://www.cancer.med.umich.edu/giving/wicha-remembers.html
Most of the time when we think about our chances of developing a disease or condition, we look to our parents. If a man’s father, grandfather, and great grandfather were bald, there is a good chance he will eventually go bald too. If a woman’s mother, aunt, and grandmother all have lots of wrinkles, it is a pretty safe bet that she assumes she, too, will have wrinkles. What if the correlation between our parents’ longevity and our own was linked just like wrinkles or hair-loss? The study below suggests that people whose parents live past their life expectancy are more likely to live longer and are less likely to develop cancer. Looks like now there is another reason to hope our parents live to a ripe old age!
A study from 1992 to 2010, which included 9, 764 people in America, concluded that people who had a long- lived mother or father were more likely to live longer along with a 24% less chance of getting cancer. The study compared patients who had parents that lived longer compared to those who had parents who lived to an average age for their generation. Long-lived mothers were classified as those who lived past 91 years old, compared to those who reached an average of 77-91 years of age. Those who were long-lived fathers lived over the age of 87 compared to an average of 65 to 87 years.
Mortality rated dropped up to 19% for each decade that a parent lived past the age of 65. For children whose mothers lived past 85 years mortality rates dropped 40% and those with fathers who also lived past 85 years mortality dropped 19% (More adverse lifestyle factors were believed to be more common in fathers).
There have been previous studies which have shown that children with parents who lived past 100 years old tend to live longer along with less heart diseases but this is the first study to show, with evidence, that children with long- lived parents are less likely to get cancer, diabetes or suffer a heart attack. Evidence also showed that the resistance of inheriting an age-related disease lowered as the parents got older.
The group of scientists included Kenneth Langa, M.D., Ph.D, a professor of internal medicine at U-M Medical School as well as the associate director of the U-M-based Health and Retirement study. There were also doctors from the University of Iowa such as Robert Wallace, Dr. Jean-Marie Robine from the National Institute for Health and Medical Research in France (Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médical) and David Melzer of the University of Exeter Medical School.
All information taken from
The recent discovery that gene sequencing, or the process of determining the order of nucleotides within a DNA molecule, could help identify cancer mutations began with a 44-year-old woman with solitary fibrous tumor, a rare cancer seen in only a few hundred people every year.
By looking at the entire DNA from this one patient’s tumor, researchers have found a genetic anomaly that provides an important clue to improving how this cancer is diagnosed and treated.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center sequenced the tumor’s genome through a new program called MI-ONCOSEQ, which is designed to identify genetic mutations in tumors that might be targeted with new therapies being tested in clinical trials.
The sequencing also allows researchers to find new mutations. In this case, an unusual occurrence of two genes fusing together. This is the first time this gene fusion has been identified.
“In most cases, mutations are identified because we see them happening again and again. Here, we had only one case of this. We knew it was important because integrated sequencing ruled out all the known cancer genes. That allowed us to focus on what had been changed,” says Michigan Center for Translational Pathology’s lead study author Dan R. Robinson.
Once they found the anomaly, the researchers looked at 50 other tumor samples from benign and cancerous solitary fibrous tumors, looking for the gene fusion. It showed up in every one of the samples.
“Genetic sequencing is extremely important with rare tumors,” says study co-author and associate professor of internal medicine at University of Michigan Medical School Scott Schuetze, M.D. “Models of rare cancers to study in the laboratory are either not available or very limited. The sequencing helps us to learn more about the disease that we can use to develop better treatments or to help diagnose the cancer in others.”
This particular fusion may prove to be a difficult target for therapies, but researchers believe they may be able to attack the growth signaling cycle that leads to this gene fusion.
“Understanding the changes induced in the cell by the (NAB2-STAT6) gene fusion will help us to select novel drugs to study in patients with advanced solitary fibrous tumors. Currently this is a disease for which there are no good drug therapies available and patients are in great need of better treatments,” Schuetze says.
No treatments or clinical trials are currently available based on these findings. Additional testing in the lab is needed to assess the best way to target this specific gene fusion. it could also potentially be used to help identify solitary fibrous tumors in cases where diagnosis is challenging.
All information in this blog post has been taken from the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center website (http://www.cancer.med.umich.edu/giving/gene-sequencing.html).
In our efforts with the Draper Therapies Philanthropy Project, we’re able to raise money through the sale of certain products in our store to benefit the Spencer Bell Endowment Fund. This fund aims to raise awareness for adrenal cancer research, support and provide a training ground for young students interested in a career in medicine or science through sponsorship of summer research fellowships in laboratories associated with the Adrenal Cancer Program at the University of Michigan.
To date, we had made $1,800.00 in donations to the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. As of late last week, we were able to make a sizable donation in the amount of $865.00 whichbrings our grand donation total to to $2,665.00. We’re so thrilled to have this small part in helping to make a difference!
This money all goes to help further research surrounding adrenal cancer, a rare and typically fatal orphan cancer. Thank you to customers Janet Thurston, Lenette Graham, Michael Lane, Gerard Jacobson, Edward Rasmussen, Lyn Compoli, Claire Ledig-Jenkins, Kristieann Draper, Phillip Taylor, Susan Levine, Linda Barr, Janet LeBlanc, George Boucher, Donna Rivet, Denise Belcher, Geraldine Stutte, Robin Donahe, Hologenix and Linda Cramer for their product purchases. It is through providing health and wellness to others and the support of our customers that we’re able to put our words into action beyond the therapeutic products we’re offering. So hats off to everyone for the support and willingness to stand behind us and go the next step!
It gives us great pleasure to be continually posting the success of our Draper Philanthropy Project. Specifically our goal is to raise awareness for adrenal cancer, a rare and typically fatal orphan cancer, and to help further research through regular donations via the sale of certain products. The University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center is leading the way when it comes researching and making further advancements surrounding this cancer. It’s exactly the reason why we’re so lucky to have partnered up with them.
This month we’re able to report that a check to the Spencer Bell Endowment Fund in the amount of of $825.00 helped bring our customer contribution to the program to a grand total of $2,625.00. Thank you to customers Alweinna Sours, Denise Belcher, Kristin Sandborn, William Hale, Joanne Ziolkowski, Erika Wirt, Jane O’Meara, Maryann Belcher, John Shoemaker, Darrell Horsley, Tiffany Brandenburg, Donald Cahill and Barbara Allegretta for their product purchases via Draper Therapies. It is through providing health and wellness to others that we’re able to join forces with a larger force to go above and beyond. Thank you!!!
Article republished from the University of Michigan’s Comprehensive Cancer Center- Cancer News
Building Support for Adrenal Cancer Research at U-M
When Diana Hart’s brother was diagnosed with adrenal cancer, her whole world turned upside down. Like so many others who feel powerless in the face of life-threatening illness, Diana turned to the Internet for information and guidance, but she found very few resources. Considered an ultra-rare cancer, adrenal cancer strikes less than 400 people nationwide each year. Unlike patients with more common cancers, those with rare cancers don’t have national support networks or immediate access to information about best practices and treatment options.
Diana’s search ultimately led her to U-M endocrinologist Gary Hammer, M.D., Ph.D., director of one of the world’s only comprehensive adrenal cancer clinics. Now, Diana has become a driving force for the disease, along with dozens of others who are working across the country to raise awareness about adrenal cancer — channeling financial support into U-M’s research and giving a voice to patients with this devastating disease.
“When Derrick was diagnosed, I didn’t even know what the adrenal gland was, let alone that you could get cancer in it,” recalls Diana Hart. “It was terrifying — his children were very young and he had so much life left in front of him. It’s like the world just stopped and we had nowhere to turn for answers. That’s the reality for people with rare cancers.”
“Then we found Dr. Hammer, and everything changed,” adds Diana, whose brother was treated at U-M and has now been cancer free for nearly two years.
U-M’s Comprehensive Cancer Center established one of the nation’s first adrenal cancer clinics in the 1970s, which formed the basis for the Multidisciplinary Endocrine Cancer Program. Established in 2005, the program brings together experts in related fields to provide coordinated, exceptional care to patients diagnosed with adrenal cancer and other cancers of the endocrine system.
Diana Hart with her brother, Derrick:
“The Schembechler gift allowed us to convene an international consortium of adrenal cancer researchers and establish a mechanism for collaborative research, which is critical given that the adrenal cancer populations are so small,” says Dr. Hammer. “Now the consortium makes it possible for adrenal cancer researchers to share information and establish best practices in patient care, as well as undertake multi- institutional research.”
As a result, the U-M team, in collaboration with international colleagues, has made significant discoveries in adrenal cancer over the past few years, particularly around understanding the biology of the disease and the mechanisms that drive its growth.
“We have made major progress in a relatively short time,” adds Dr. Hammer. “We now have a much clearer understanding of how the disease starts, which has not only allowed us to diagnose it earlier, but has also allowed us to develop and test new drugs designed to target adrenal cancer specifically.”
All of this work has put U-M at the center of adrenal cancer research globally, and the network of patients and their families who’ve been treated by Dr. Hammer and his colleagues, medical oncologist Frank Worden, M.D., and endocrine surgeons Paul Gauger, M.D., and Barbra Miller, M.D., has continued to build momentum on the disease by raising awareness and support for additional research.
Diana Hart, for example, enlisted the support of her longtime friend Geno Auriemma — University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach and U.S. women’s basketball coach for the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics — and his wife, Kathy, to co-host two adrenal cancer events, which raised the capital necessary for Dr. Hammer to establish the world’s first adrenal cancer tissue repository.
Cathy and Bill Bell established an adrenal cancer foundation in memory of their late son, Spencer, another victim of the disease. Spencer was an up-and-coming musician with his band, the Stevedores. His family, close friends (including the band 100 Monkeys), and other supporters host concerts and other events around the world to raise awareness about adrenal cancer and to support U-M’s research.
Kat Wojtylak, product manager at Draper Therapies and a cancer survivor herself, encouraged her company to get involved with the adrenal cancer effort. Draper Therapies adopted the cause and now supports an adrenal cancer website with information about upcoming events and fundraising successes.
“We also include information about adrenal cancer research in all of our product catalogues, and we include an adrenal cancer pamphlet along with every order we ship out,” says Kat. “This year, we also initiated special product promotions, with 50 percent of the proceeds going to support adrenal cancer research.”
These initiatives, along with efforts by dozens of others, have yielded significant funding and provided seed investments in a number of important projects, including new work in genetic sequencing.
“While all adrenal cancers begin in the adrenal gland, we suspect that there are a number of different ways in which these cancers develop. Our genetic sequencing work will allow us to identify the molecular variations among adrenal cancer tumors,” says Dr. Hammer. “Ultimately, instead of treating all adrenal cancers the same, we’ll be able to customize treatments based on the genetic factors involved in each patient’s cancer.”
The widespread financial support of U-M’s adrenal cancer research — from Bo Schembechler’s original gift to the grassroots fundraising of Diana Hart and others today — has not only paid off in terms of immediate progress, but has also helped set the stage for a major investment in adrenal cancer research by the National Cancer Institute. The NCI has just announced that it will make a multi-million-dollar investment in an adrenal cancer genetic sequencing project with the U-M team leading the effort.
“Ten years ago, adrenal cancer wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Now, because of the support of so many people and the research infrastructure and discovery that support has enabled, we’re poised to make a transformational difference on the disease over the next ten years,” adds Dr. Hammer.
For Diana Hart, seeing the power that individuals have to make a real difference in rare cancers is extremely energizing.
“I’ve always been involved in cancer fundraising — I did the walks and wore the ribbons. But before this disease entered my life, I really didn’t understand how few resources there are for rare cancers-for patients and for research,” says Diana. “I feel like all of us involved in the adrenal cancer fight are showing how patients and their families can get involved and help make progress happen on these kinds of orphan diseases. It’s really very exciting.”
For more information on how you can make a difference in rare cancers, please contact UMCCCAnnualGiving@umich.edu.