Courtesy: Terry Morey
May 28, 2021
Study proves real-life benefits of lung cancer drug for certain patients
A philanthropy-fuelled database created at the University of Calgary is proving its value and attracting national and international attention, including for some highly encouraging new research for treating lung cancer.
The study, published in February, examined real-world outcomes for 92 patients from the provincial Glans-Look Database with Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. These Albertans were prescribed a well-tolerated, pill-form treatment for a specific form of non-small cell lung cancer. Using the database, researchers tracked their experience between 2014 and 2019 and the study confirms the drug worked well and was safe for these Alberta patients.
“The exciting thing was that we found the experience in the real world was as good as we hoped,” says Dr. Gwyn Bebb, MD, PhD, a professor and medical oncologist with the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute.
These are not cheap drugs — they cost the health-care system thousands of dollars a month. When you have people with lung cancer who can go back to work and look after their families, that is a very reassuring result.
All the patients in the study were ALK-positive, which means some unknown triggers have prompted a chromosome carrying their ALK gene (anaplastic lymphoma kinase) to break off and fuse with another one. This mutation propels the cancer growth. Roughly 25 to 40 Alberta patients are diagnosed with ALK-positive non-small cell lung cancer each year.
The medication used in the study is an ALK-TKI (tyrosine kinase inhibitor) — a class of precision medicine drugs that block the signals telling cancer cells to divide, slowing tumour growth. The oral medication provided dramatic results and minimal side-effects for the study participants. The study found that their median overall survival was four years — roughly four times longer than those treated with chemotherapy. Without treatment, Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer patients often succumb to the disease within four to eight months.
Improving the patient experience
Cochrane, Alta. grandfather Terry Morey, 74, takes ALK-inhibiting drugs which have helped to keep his Stage 4 ALK+ non-small cell lung cancer at bay. When he was first diagnosed, he learned he might only live six to 18 more months. That was more than seven years ago, in 2013.
“I thought I was going to be a widow in a matter of months. The research doesn’t just benefit the patient, it benefits everyone who cares about them,” says his wife, Joyce.
Capturing the kind of real-world evidence required for the study relied on the depth of data secured by the UCalgary/Alberta Health Services Glans-Look Database — one of few of its kind and the envy of cancer researchers across Canada and around the world. It’s even attracting attention from major pharmaceutical companies wishing to partner on new drug studies and collect data that allows them to show Health Canada the impact these drugs have in a real-world setting.
Since 2008, the data platform has collected detailed provincewide lung cancer outcomes data for about 10,000 patients. It also maintains a case-matched lung cancer tissue and nucleic acid bank for about 1,000 patients to inform future research. The database is also being used to help inform the physicians of tomorrow, through training, to increase their awareness and understanding of lung cancer. It has provided the platform for three graduate student master’s theses, two international research fellowships and 18 peer-reviewed manuscripts.
The power of philanthropy
“This study is only possible through the vision and support of Albertans impacted by lung cancer,” says Amanda Gibson, the study’s lead author and lead research associate with the Department of Oncology at the Cumming School of Medicine.
The name of the Glans-Look Database was inspired by support from two of Bebb’s lung cancer patients. In 2007, Jon Glans organized a charity golf tournament where the proceeds from the day went directly to support its creation and further expansion. A second patient, Jim Look, inspired several of his friends to donate a million dollars for the database over five years, before he passed away in 2010. Two of those friends, Allen Knight and Hugh Borgland, continue to support the database today.
“I am so proud, that along with Allen Knight and others, we have been able to support the database. Jim would be very proud that Dr. Bebb has used this database to identify a marker that has led to extended life for certain lung cancer patients,” says Borgland.
“Jim wanted his legacy to include the creation of such a worthwhile endeavour, to help future patients benefit from the best method in treating similar cancers. Under the skillful guidance of Dr. Bebb, this effort grew to an amazing knowledge program that is leading to cutting-edge treatments. We hope others will step up to help support the database,” adds Knight.
An enduring legacy
Courtesy: Terry Morey
It just so happens, Terry Morey and Jim Look knew each other. “We worked together in oil and gas many, many years ago. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up with lung cancer, too. Now Jim’s helping me,” Morey says.
Morey worried he would never see his oldest grandchild, Laeken Kinch, 20, graduate from high school. But he was able to proudly attend that ceremony with his family and expects to see Kinch achieve her next milestone, a Bachelor of Science degree.
When asked what this means to her, Kinch’s eyes spill over with tears. She plans to apply for medical school and eventually pursue research herself. She volunteers with the Glans-Look Database team, helping with some data research basics, and she’s thrilled to be involved and giving back.
“It’s super exciting. There are such smart people making it happen, so carefully and meticulously, so that we can figure out these really amazing things that can the save lives of cancer patients,” she says.
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Gwyn Bebb is a medical oncologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, a member of the Cumming School of Medicine’s Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine.