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Huntsman Cancer Institute joins study aimed at improving leukemia screening, treatment

SALT LAKE CITY — The Huntsman Cancer Institute will be one of just a handful of health organizations to oversee an extensive clinical study aimed at better determining which new treatments work best for acute myeloid leukemia patients on a case-by-case basis.

The purpose of the study is to discover how to quickly choose an individualized treatment route for a patient with that cancer based on molecular testing of their genetic traits, said Dr. Michael Deininger, a co-investigator of the trial and senior director of transdisciplinary research at Huntsman Cancer Institute.

"It's basically tailoring a treatment approach to what's wrong with the leukemia cells in a given patient," said Deininger, who is also chief of the Division of Hematology and Hematologic Malignancies at the University of Utah School of Medicine. "The idea is to return this information ... so fast that you can start specific, personalized treatment right from the beginning."

In the trial, the plan is for patients' genetic results to be finalized within a matter of days, Deininger told the Deseret News.

"What we can do now is get DNA sequencing back within one week and in many cases ... these patients can be treated (for their specific case) with these drugs right up front, which is hopefully going to make a difference," he said.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute said in a release that the idea behind genetic screening is to help determine the best treatment for each specific patient's cancer, but traditionally only one or two genetic factors could be identified, excluding the possibility of individualized treatment for a majority of patients.

Testing for more genetic factors could mean a greater range of individually targeted treatments for a larger share of patients, Deininger said, meaning most of them could benefit.

"Over the past five to seven years we've learned a lot more about how (acute myeloid leukemia) cells work," he said.

Acute myeloid leukemia is a blood cancer that originates in a person's bone marrow and can spread quickly. The National Cancer Institute projects more than 21,000 Americans will be diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2018 and that more than 10,000 will die from it next year.

The trial will seek to enroll 500 subjects and is estimated to be finished by December 2021. Eligible patients must be at least 60 years old, in part because acute myeloid leukemia is more prevalent among older populations and also because younger patients are generally more responsive to traditional treatments, Deininger said.

Of the cutting-edge treatments employed in the study, three of them gained approval for wide use just last year, and another handful of them are only sanctioned for use in clinical trials, according to Deininger. The number and type of treatments are expected to fluctuate depending on what researchers see in the initial results, he said.

"The plan is to publish the so-called master trial, but more importantly each of these substudies (of a specific treatment) is a research effort in its own right," Deininger said.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute is among just eight academic centers to participate in the clinical trial, and is the only one in the Intermountain West, according to spokeswoman Debby Rogers.

The effort is being backed by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, an organization that coordinates and financially supports blood cancer research around the world.

Deininger said the Huntmsan Cancer Institute's role in carrying out the trial is a recognition that "we're fortunate to have several investigators here … knowledgeable enough to do these studies."

"It's also very gratifying to be able to offer the (treatments) to patients here in Utah … so we don't have to send people out of state to offer these kind of treatment options," he said.

Deininger will be joined on the study by fellow Huntsman Cancer Institute researchers and leukemia experts Dr. Tibor Kovacsovics and Dr. Paul Shami.