Fight Colorectal Cancer and its generous Lisa Fund donors struck a blow against late stage colorectal cancer Tuesday, April 9th at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Washington D.C.
Top cancer researchers from around the nation applauded as we, along with the AACR, awarded a $50,000 research grant to Pia Morelli, M.D., Ph.D., a post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
With this grant, Dr. Morelli will use highly specific DNA tests on blood samples to identify those patients most likely to respond to drugs that target the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR), and also to detect even more specific KRAS and EGFR mutations that develop over time, which perhaps cause patients to eventually become resistant to anti-EGFR drugs such as Erbitux (cetuximab) and Vectibix (panitumumab).
Currently, tumors of late-stage colorectal cancer patients are tested to detect a KRAS genetic mutation. If they have the mutation, they do not receive Erbitux or Vectibix. However, even those who have wild-type (non-mutated) KRAS and initially respond to anti-EGFR treatments can develop resistance and no longer benefit from these powerful drugs.
Researchers now understand that cancer is usually a “cascade” of events–often involving more than one genetic mutation and/or abnormal cell functions.–and that over time, patients may develop new mutations, even in different sections of one tumor. However, tumors are always leaking DNA into the blood stream. In her research, Dr. Morelli will analyze blood samples of colorectal cancer patients using a highly specialized new technique of DNA analysis that can detect these less frequent mutations that can occur in both the KRAS gene and in EGFR cell-wall mutations over time, and that might cause chemotheraphy resistance. The ultimate hope would be to eventually use blood DNA analysis instead of repeated tumor biopsies to monitor cancer cell changes during disease progression and treatment.
Working at MD Anderson, she will be able to test large numbers of blood samples to see if the highly sensitive DNA analysis can better predict both initial response and/or developing resistance to the anti-EGFR targeted drugs.
Dr. Morelli graduated summa cum laude in medicine and started her medical oncology fellowship at the Second University at Naples School of Medicine, where she had the rare chance to do “translational research”—doing both patient care and laboratory research on the EGFR (epidermal growth factor receptor) and VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor receptor) that stimulate tumor growth. Recruited to the University of Colorado Cancer Center, she completed her medical oncology fellowship and a Ph.D. with world-renowned Dr. Gail Eckhardt, continuing her laboratory research into targeted drugs plus running Phase I clinical trials. She then worked two years at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, and in 2012 came to the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
According to her supervising mentor, Scott Kopetz, M.D., Ph.D, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Morelli has “a unique insight into questions of particular clinical relevance….She is able to maximize the information derived from patient-based studies [combined with]…her unique molecular biology background.”
Her research, he said, is “anticipated to have profound impact on clinical outcomes.”
An AACR expert committee selected Dr. Morelli as winner of the 2013 Fight Colorectal Cancer-AACR Fellowship, given annually in memory of the late Lisa Dubow.
One of just a few AACR fellowships–and the only one focused on late-stage colorectal cancer–it is funded 100% by donations to the Lisa Fund at Fight Colorectal Cancer.
Lisa Dubow, one of the founding members of Fight Colorectal Cancer, directly credited researchers for giving her extra years of survival with stage IV colorectal cancer. Before her death, she launched what became known as the Lisa Fund to support young scientists who chose advanced (metastatic) colorectal cancer as their research focus.