Conquering Sarcoma With Clinical Research: A Doctor and Her Patient are Paving the Way With Support From Conquer Cancer

Oct 19, 2017

By Monika Sharda, ASCO Communications

Brittany Sullivan stood behind the podium, taking in the room through her horn-rimmed glasses. She saw awe, compassion, and joy on the faces in her audience—hundreds of members of the oncology community. At that moment, she realized she was a part of something much bigger than herself.

Ms. Sullivan, age 29, has conquered sarcoma six times since her first diagnosis at age 3. Alveolar soft part sarcoma (ASPS), Ms. Sullivan’s subtype, is an extremely rare cancer that originates in soft tissues. At the Conquer Cancer Dinner during the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting in June, Ms. Sullivan shared the inspiring story of how a clinical trial led by Breelyn A. Wilky, MD, renewed her hope for surviving cancer.

“I was the first patient to enroll in the trial, and I am delighted to share that, after whole-brain radiation and 12 months of clinical treatment, my once widely metastatic, very rare, impossible-to-treat cancer has been reduced to only a few small tumors,” Ms. Sullivan said proudly at the event. Before she could continue, the audience erupted into a standing ovation lasting nearly a minute.

YIA: Hitting the Ground Running

Ms. Sullivan’s most recent cancer diagnosis came in 2012. She was 3 months pregnant and doctors had discovered an inoperable tumor in her heart.

Meanwhile, more than 700 miles away, Dr. Wilky had just received a Young Investigator Award (YIA) from ASCO's Conquer Cancer Foundation supported by The WWWW Foundation, Inc. (QuadW) for her sarcoma research.

The YIA is an annual award that provides funding to exceptional early-career researchers looking for better treatments and cures for cancer.

“It’s a legendary award,” Dr. Wilky said. “It’s one of the most highly coveted honors among fellows for recognition of excellence in research.”

Dr. Wilky was a third-year fellow at Johns Hopkins University when she received the award. She had developed an interest in rare sarcomas, drawn by the lack of promising treatment options. The award allowed Dr. Wilky to stay at Hopkins for a fourth year of fellowship, where she conducted laboratory research in sarcoma cell lines and mouse models and gained experience working with phase I clinical trials. In 2013, she completed her fellowship and joined Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami.

“If I did not have the YIA, I would not have been able to get that hands-on training as a fellow,” she said. “That year allowed me to get the experience I needed to hit the ground running when I came to Miami.”

In Miami, Dr. Wilky began work on a clinical trial with a novel treatment—a combination of the drugs axitinib and pembrolizumab. This was the first time this drug combination was being used for sarcoma.

Fighting the Odds

Soon after the launch of her clinical trial in early 2016, Dr. Wilky received a call from an oncologist friend in Nashville inquiring about enrolling a patient on the trial. The patient was Ms. Sullivan, whose cancer had worsened. Though she had safely made it through her pregnancy, her cancer had spread, and no standard treatments were working. She had tumors in numerous parts of her body, including her heart, liver, spleen, right breast, scalp, hip, and brain.

“When people Google ‘ASPS,’ historically, it’s a death sentence,” Dr. Wilky said. “The chance of a cure when the disease has spread is essentially zero.”

Going into her first meeting with Dr. Wilky, Ms. Sullivan felt hopeless and terrified about her situation. But an hour and a half later, she walked out of Dr. Wilky’s office with renewed optimism and excitement to enroll in the clinical trial.

Each of her meetings with Dr. Wilky that have followed have been just as encouraging as the first, Ms. Sullivan said. When Dr. Wilky walks into the room with scan results, she is ecstatic and sometimes even teary-eyed as she shares the good news with her patient.

“It’s as if she’s experiencing it just as I’m experiencing it,” Ms. Sullivan said. “My cancer is more like a chronic disease at this point, so you want an oncologist who is ferociously optimistic, and that gives you the stamina you need to keep going.”

Paving the Way

Ms. Sullivan and Dr. Wilky have a lot in common. Both spend their spare time raising awareness about sarcoma through social media and their personal blogs. Both have a medical background and a passion for immunology. (Though her disease stopped her from pursuing a medical career, Ms. Sullivan is a trained physician assistant.) Both feed off each other’s optimism for cancer research.

While Ms. Sullivan credits Dr. Wilky for revitalizing her hope in living cancer-free again, Dr. Wilky says patients like Ms. Sullivan are her biggest inspiration to keep researching new treatment options.

“Every good idea comes from patients,” Dr. Wilky said. “To see young people in their 20s and 30s—which is the main group that this disease affects—being so courageous is what keeps me going to push a little harder and get a little more packed into every day.”

Before her fellowships, Dr. Wilky did not plan to pursue a career in clinical research. She explained that the YIA and a Methods in Clinical Cancer Research Workshop run by ASCO and the American Association for Cancer Research provided pivotal support at the beginning of her career.

At the dinner where Dr. Wilky and Ms. Sullivan spoke in June, CCF shared that The Campaign to Conquer Cancer has surpassed its $150 million goal. The Campaign to Conquer Cancer started in 2015 and will continue through the end of 2017 in support of cancer research.  

“There are a lot of doctors that choose to go into clinical practice instead of clinical research. But [the latter] is absolutely what we need,” Dr. Wilky said. “I’m so excited that I chose to go this route and that I can be part of this incredibly exciting time in cancer research.”

To learn more about Conquer Cancer and support a Young Investigator Award, visit CONQUER.ORG.

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