LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- An Arkansas woman hopes an experimental treatment could save her life. She's part of a clinical trial testing whether a new drug can help treat advanced cases of breast and ovarian cancer. So Far, it's showing great progress.
The new targeted therapy is for women who are genetically predisposed to the diseases, like Tina Roark; women who carry the BRCA gene. The drug targets only the cancerous cells, without the toxic effects of chemotherapy.
These days, Roark describes herself as a cancer survivor
"This time last year, I wouldn't have ever thought I'd be sitting here today," she says.
Roark has been battling breast cancer since in 1999. She was just 37. "My son was in the first grade, and he graduated this year," says Roark. "And I did not think I was going to get to see it. "
Surgery and gruelling chemotherapy led to remission, but five years later, the cancer came back with a vengeance.
"I had a lot on my spine, in my bones and my back," she recalls.
Roark is one of the five to 10 percent of women with breast or ovarian cancers who carry mutations of the BRCA gene.
The BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 genes are actually tumor surpressers, so a damaged gene puts women at high risk for the disease.
Not only did Roark test positive for the mutation, so did nearly every woman in her family. Cancer has struck nine relatives over four generations.
"My life was not worth living because it was just constant pain and agony and doctors," she says.
When chemotherapy was no longer working, Roark's doctor learned about a drug trial at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In March, Roark joined the study, under the direction of Dr. William Audeh.
Here's how the drug works. Throughout the body, cells are constantly replicating and repairing themselves. Cancer cells replicate so fast that mistakes occur, causing DNA damage. The drug, Olaparib, targets only the cancer cells and blocks the enzyme they need to repair their DNA. The result, the cancer cells die.
"And what it does is stop a type of DNA repair that most cells need," says Dr. Audeh.
In this international trial of around 300 patients, 30 to 40 percent are responding.
"It's very difficult to say cure with anybody who has advanced cancer," Dr. Audah admits.
But remarkably, in the past nine months, Roark's tumors have shrunk 64 percent.
"It's always amazing to see a drug that really doesn't have a lot of side effects produce responses in people who have very advanced cancers," says Dr. Audah.
Roark travels from Arkansas every month, and nervously awaits test results. So far, everything looks good, and she's looking forward to her son's next milestone.
"Now I'm going wait and see him graduate college," Roark says. "I'm going to see him walk across that stage."
Next year, about 100 additional patients will be accepted into the trial.
In the battle against breast cancer, the future lies in targeted therapy, identifying and understanding which genetic mutation has occurred, and finding a drug that disables the cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.
While these results are encouraging, the study is still trying to ascertain just how long this drug will continue to be effective against the disease.