Dr. Sugarbaker, co-leader of the Brigham Biomedical Research Institute’s Cancer Research Center, Chief of the Institute’s Division of Thoracic Surgery, and the Richard Wilson Professor of Oncologic Surgery at Harvard Medical School, recently developed a new mesothelioma treatment that is keeping one woman alive even after five years – a long survival rate for a form of cancer as pervasively deadly as mesothelioma.
Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School, is a 777-bed patient-centric teaching hospital in Boston founded in 1832 which continues to focus on women’s health services.
Dr. Sugarbaker, a surgeon and clinician, focuses on noncardiac thoracic diseases, particularly lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare but usually lethal form of cancer of mesothelial tissues lining the body’s cavities. According to him, most mesothelioma patients are diagnosed with inoperable stage IV disease, which means that only about 1 in 5 is diagnosed soon enough to be “suitable surgical candidates”.
Noting that the world is in the midst of an epidemic of mesothelioma that is not expected to peak until 2020, Dr. Sugarbaker has been developing innovative surgical and oncological approaches – including mesothelioma resection – that now allow Karen Grant to survive well beyond the typical prognosis for individuals diagnosed with mesothelioma; one year.
Grant is part of Dr. Sugarbaker’s International Mesothelioma Program, which he founded and is currently director of, and benefits from the program’s translational research into a cure, which has so far eluded science.
Mesothelioma, which occurs as a result of exposure to asbestos, is most commonly found in the lining around the lungs, as pleural mesothelioma, but can also be found in the lining around the abdominal organs (peritoneal mesothelioma) or the lining around the heart.
Most victims have the disease for up to 50 years before it is diagnosed. This is because mesothelioma, in its dormant or early stage, manifests with symptoms that can easily be mistaken for a number of heart and/or lung-related problems.
Only in stage IV does the cancer become so aggressive that symptoms force doctors to take a closer look, and it is then that the one-year prognosis is given. Few patients survive beyond 18 months, even with aggressive, multimodal therapies that involve surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, depending on the oncologist’s best advice.
Grant, who was facing death from mesothelioma five years ago, at age 29, has since had two surgeries, called extrapleural pneumonectomies, to remove the cancers that lined both lungs – a procedure that Dr. Sugarbaker has so refined that its current use has an extremely low mortality rate during surgery.
Grant has also undergone laser surgery to remove cancer cells too small to be detected during surgery, and followup treatments which involve bathing both lungs with hot chemotherapy solution, followed by additional months of treatment and rehabilitation.
At five years and counting, Grant’s lung scans and exams show no recurrence of the cancer, which would typically re-emerge at two or three years. This is such a symbol of hope to other mesothelioma suffers that even Dana-Farber Institute clinician, Dr. Pasi Janne sees it as a milestone, and possibly even proof that science has finally found a cure for this dreaded disease.
For Dr. Sugarbaker and his team, the news is good, but it does not slow research efforts aimed at identifying protein markers in tumors from which to develop individualized, targeted cancer-killing chemicals and treatments. This, while further refining the pioneering surgical treatment protocols that have allowed Grant and others to survive well beyond the norm.