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You may have heard that improvements in cancer care happen every day. It’s true: treatments are getting better. That means many people with cancer now live longer than ever before.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology reports that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a total of 126 cancer drugs between 1980 and 2018. Cancer drugs now account for more than one in four of all new drug approvals in the United States. That’s the finding of a report from the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development.

Clinical trials made every one of these advances possible.

Clinical trials are research studies in which people volunteer to test new medical treatments. Clinical trials help researchers find new ways to prevent, detect, or treat disease. Clinical trials also provide vital information about whether a proposed treatment is safe.

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Clinical Trial in Pittsburgh Advances Cancer Care Everywhere

Not all clinical trials change the way doctors treat a disease. But that’s what happened with one recent UPMC-based study called IMpassion130. Leisha Emens, MD,co-leader of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center Immunology and Immunotherapy Program, was the senior researcher.

This Phase 3 clinical trial tested the use of atezolizumab — an FDA-approved bladder and lung cancer drug — to improve survival rates in breast cancer patients.

Researchers enrolled 902 patients with advanced triple-negative breast cancer in the trial. All patients received an FDA-approved chemotherapy drug called nab-paclitaxel. Half also received atezolizumab, while the rest received a drug-free placebo.

Neither the patients nor their doctors knew which patients received the active drug. When the trial ended, researchers found that patients with a certain genetic mutation who received atezolizumab survived significantly longer. And their cancer took longer to return. Results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The FDA has now approved atezolizumab for a specific kind of triple-negative breast cancer.

Clinical trial volunteers — at UPMC and in 40 other countries — helped make this important breakthrough possible. Patients everywhere now benefit from this discovery.

Advances Are Made Every Day

The Beat AML®Master Clinical Trial is another important study now underway in Pittsburgh. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is one of 15 centers collaborating in this Leukemia & Lymphoma Society study of treatments for acute myeloid leukemia (AML). It is one of the deadliest and most common adult blood cancers, so patients with AML have few treatment options.

Michael Boyiadzis, MD, co-director, acute leukemia program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, leads the Beat AML trial in Pittsburgh.

In this trial, researchers tested a variety of targeted therapies for AML patients. They used genomic testing to find genetic mutations in each patient’s tumor cells. Doctors then used that information to match each patient with an appropriate targeted therapy.

The study continues, but Nature published early results. The key findings: Genomic testing allows doctors to identify genetic mutations and make treatment decisions in just one week. That’s important with an aggressive cancer like AML.

Many Ways to Join in Cancer Research

More than 450 clinical trials are available at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. That means patients may have the opportunity to volunteer for a clinical trial. Participation in a specific trial depends on diagnosis, cancer stage, and patient demographics.

UPMC Hillman Cancer Center works to improve cancer care for everyone. As a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, we encourage patients to consider clinical trials. This emphasis on research lets us advance cancer care every day in western Pennsylvania — and beyond.

ASCO Post. New Report Finds Cancer Drugs Account for Over a Quarter of All New Drug Approvals in the United States. Link

Impact Report. Cancer drug approvals grew from 4% of U.S. total in the 1980s to 27% in 2010-18. Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development.

New England Journal of Medicine. Atezolizumab and Nab-Paclitaxel in Advanced Triple-Negative Breast Cancer. Link

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA approves atezolizumab for PD-L1 positive unresectable locally advanced or metastatic triple-negative breast cancer. Link

Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Bringing Precision Medicine to AML Patients: Going on the Offensive against Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Link

Nature. Functional genomic landscape of acute myeloid leukaemia. Link

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.