Bringing Basic Science
to the Clinic
words by mary ann littell / photograph by pete byron
s a gynecologic oncologist, Darlene Gibbon, MD, takes a two-pronged approach to cancer. She specializes in the surgical and medical treatment of gynecologic malignancies, including uterine, ovarian and endometrial cancers. Her skills include specialized training in administering chemotherapy.
Gibbon is also part of the Developmental Therapeutics team at CINJ. This group of subspecialists, also called the Phase I group, studies experimental drugs that have been found in laboratory research to be promising cancer agents.
“This work is exciting,” she says. “Several of the studies involve new drugs or unique combinations of drugs that have been proposed by investigators at CINJ. The Phase I trials are open to any patients diagnosed with a solid tumor malignancy.”
She estimates that at any given time, there are up to 10 women with gynecologic malignancies participating in the program. “Women with these cancers who have run out of standard chemotherapy options are referred to the Phase I group, where they are placed in open trials,” she says. “It offers them an opportunity for additional, cutting-edge therapy.”
One area of excitement to cancer researchers is the study of biologic medicines. “It’s a whole new arena opening up. We’re learning how to combine biologic agents with current chemotherapy treatments to improve responses, not only in terms of eradicating the disease, but also in making the response more durable and long-lasting. We’re evaluating responses differently now. For example, in the past, we’d focus on tumor shrinkage. Now we’re looking at tumor metabolism or relief of symptoms as possible markers of response.”
Gibbon says she’s always been interested in clinical research, “since I was a fellow in gynecologic oncology, where our work was based on trials from the Gynecologic Oncology Group (GOG),” an NCI-funded group that runs approved protocols.
The physician sets aside one day a week for her Phase I patients and another day for her regular gynecologic oncology patients. The rest of her week is spent in surgery or following her research interests, some of them in collaboration with Lorna Rodriguez, MD, PhD, professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences and chief, Division of Gynecologic Oncology. The two have worked together for 20 years, “since I was an ob/gyn resident and she was my attending physician,” notes Gibbon. They came to CINJ from the University of Rochester in 2000.
“I was very settled in Rochester and wasn’t interested in relocating, but Lorna said, ‘Just come down and take a look,’” she recalls. “When I saw what a great place CINJ was, I was hooked. The research and clinical facilities are excellent, and the staff includes some of the finest and most dedicated physicians I have ever had the pleasure of working with.”
Gibbon is working with Rodriguez on a study looking at the effects of the mineral selenium in combination with standard treatment for ovarian cancer. Currently, the standard of care involves the drugs carboplatin and paclitaxel, which have been shown to shrink tumors. However, that shrinkage may not last for a long period of time due to drug resistance. Previous research shows that selenium inhibits the development of a tumor’s resistance to carboplatin. In this study, 30 patients with ovarian cancer received selenium with the two drugs with the hope of improving response to chemotherapy. “We’ve seen some impressive, durable responses to this therapy,” says Gibbon. Rodriguez is principal investigator of the trial, which grew out of basic research conducted by scientists at Rutgers-Newark.
“This study shows where we need to go in the future — bringing basic science discoveries into the clinic and moving them forward,” she says. “It illustrates the importance of collaboration in improving cancer care, not just in New Jersey but throughout the world.”