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Taking a Personalized Approach to a Deadly Disease-Matt Ellefson

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Matt Ellefson’s cancer journey began in the fall of 2009 with a cough that he chalked up to seasonal allergies. But the cough lingered, and one morning he woke up coughing up blood.

“A few hours later I found myself in a hospital bed with a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer,” he says. His doctor told him that, without treatment, he could expect to live eight months and, even with treatment, his five-year survival rate was less than 5 percent.

Rather than surrender to his disease, Ellefson decided to wager on those grim odds and began treatment, which gained him a year in remission. But in 2011 the cancer came back, this time in a lymph node.

Sitting in his oncologist’s office waiting to hear about his treatment options, Ellefson was checking e-mail on his phone when he came across information about a new drug that was just approved to treat lung cancer with the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene mutation. He asked his oncologist about the therapy, tested positive for the mutation, and began treatment.

“I was shocked at how great I felt in a matter of two weeks,” Ellefson says. And shortly after starting treatment there, he says there were no signs of cancer in his body.




New hope through new treatments
Ellefson’s story is one that is becoming increasingly common as treatments evolve for lung cancer, which is one of the most challenging diseases to treat.

Scientists now know that cancer is not one disease, but a collection of hundreds of different diseases, and they’re attempting to tailor their treatment approaches to the specific patients who might benefit.

In 2003, scientists successfully mapped the human genome, which has opened new scientific learnings and opportunities for biopharmaceutical researchers to develop treatments that target cancers at the molecular level.

Cancer takes a heavy toll
Despite the numerous treatment advances, cancer still places a heavy burden on patients, their families, and society. It’s the second leading cause of death in the U.S., affecting one in every two men, and one in every three women, according to the American Cancer Society.

And lung cancer ranks as the second most common type of cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths. In fact, lung cancer kills almost twice as many women as breast cancer, and almost three times as many men as prostate cancer. More than 224,000 people will be told they have lung cancer this year, and 160,000 will die from the disease. Currently, only 16 percent of lung cancer patients diagnosed with disease survive for five years.

But today’s oncologists have a growing arsenal of treatments to choose from. This includes new genetic tests that can help doctors uncover the root causes of a patient’s cancer and give individuals new ways to fight it.

Advances here and on the horizon
“I tell family and friends that if I had been diagnosed a year earlier than I had, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” Ellefson says.

Other new treatments for lung cancer include:

• Advances in treatment of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), including treatments that target mutations of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) gene, which are present in about 10% of all patients with NSCLC.
• Medicines that work by cutting off the blood supply that allows tumors to grow and thrive.
• Nanotechnology and nanodrugs, which are on the order of one millionth of a millimeter in size, to deliver the therapy right to the tumor without affecting surrounding tissues.

Holding out for future advances
“When I started the targeted therapy in 2011, I was told on average that the drug would work for eight to 10 months before the cancer would become resistant to the drug,” Ellefson says. Ellefson had a complete response to the drug, and during the last 36 months, he has been able to effectively control his cancer while living an active and productive life.

But today his doctors are better prepared than they would have been three years ago if his cancer does return.

In the amount of time that this medication has added to his life, Ellefson says three new drugs have come into use that his doctor can use as an alternative if his cancer starts to become resistant to his current treatment.

“It’s extremely important to be able to extend your life and keep the cancer at bay,” Ellefson concludes. And the journey that began in 2009 continues, with reason for continued optimism.



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