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Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center launches new program to target aggressive thyroid cancers

  • Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center has announced plans to open a new program that specializes in targeted treatments for patients with advanced and aggressive thyroid cancers. The Thyroid Cancer 360 Program aims to improve outcomes for the most acute thyroid cancer patients by targeting the unique genomics and biology of an individual's specific disease. It is being led by Jochen Lorch, MD, MS, director of the Thyroid Cancer Center at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center.

    The idea for the program developed as Lorch worked with one of his most determined and courageous patients, Elizabeth Panke, MD, PhD. Panke is a pathologist in Ohio and a cancer patient. She was successfully treated with personalized medicine in 1999 to treat her ovarian and endometrial cancers. Panke also underwent a total thyroidectomy and radioactive iodine treatment to treat her thyroid cancer, but the tumors still spread to her lungs – an aggressive response that occurs in about 10 percent of patients with differentiated thyroid carcinomas. In 2014, it became clear that Panke's thyroid cancer was consistently not responding to treatment. Having found success in the past with precision medicine, Panke began urgently researching ways to utilize this method for her thyroid disease.

    "A landmark 2014 study, led by Dr. Lorch, showed a patient with a typically deadly anaplastic thyroid cancer who had a dramatic response to treatment personalized to their tumor," said Panke, who has also survived uterine cancer. "Dr. Lorch uncovered mutations in the tumor that enabled this response, a prime example of personalized cancer treatment at its best. Through this work, he expanded our understanding of diagnostic and treatment strategies for one of the most aggressive and difficult to treat thyroid cancers and gave us hope to move forward."

    In the Thyroid Cancer Center, part of DF/BWCC's Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Center, Panke saw encouraging hope for critically ill thyroid patients – including herself. She used "snail mail" to send Lorch an archived box of her tumor samples to study for mutations and any possible link between her ovarian and thyroid cancers. At the same time, Panke and her husband established the Panke Thyroid Research Fund at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center in 2015. The fund supports research within the Thyroid Cancer 360 Program, with a focus on leveraging knowledge from individual thyroid tumor genomic and biological profiles – including Panke's – to further develop diagnostic and treatment strategies. The resources of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Harvard Medical School are all being used to grow the program's database of challenging cases.

    "While most thyroid cancer patients are cured with standard therapy, some patients develop refractory disease that is incurable and has a very poor prognosis," says Lorch. "Our personalized cancer treatment program is designed to help identify the most appropriate targeted therapies for these patients as their cancer evolves, and to develop new therapeutic approaches in the treatment of advanced and aggressive thyroid cancers. We have begun to leverage our knowledge of cancerous cells and how they operate to move the ball forward."

    Studying Panke's tumor samples, Lorch's team found no link between her ovarian and thyroid cancers. However, they did identify a new mutation in a gene which may be a useful target in thyroid cancer patients. Lorch says that The Thyroid Cancer 360 Program allows for potentially lifesaving advances to be made for patients in desperate need of new therapies. Panke believes that it is an honor to have been part of team that launched the program off the ground and she is hopeful that it will soon begin to help others, including herself.

    "My husband and I feel very privileged, and we are extremely grateful to be able to access personalized cancer care through Dr. Lorch and Dana-Farber," Panke said. "We appreciate that Dr. Lorch and Dana-Farber are leading the way in the battle against cancer, and have a worldwide reputation for setting the standards of cancer research and care that is unmatched anywhere. We are excited to be associated with Dr. Lorch and with a research institution making such great progress in effective, personalized thyroid cancer treatment."

Posted on December 05, 2017

  • Jochen H. Lorch, MD, MS
  • Research
  • Thyroid Cancer
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  • Jochen Lorch, MD, MS

    Jochen Lorch, MD, MS

  • Elizabeth Panke, MD, PhD, and husband Tom

    Physician and cancer patient Elizabeth Panke, MD, PhD, and husband Tom