Newswise — Doctors face a difficult decision when they must choose a drug combination that will benefit the person sitting before them in an exam room. Statistics can’t show how any one person will respond to a treatment. And in treating ovarian cancer, Sarah Adams, MD, knows that such treatment decisions can have high stakes; she routinely makes these decisions.

A physician-scientist at The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, Adams wants to find better ways to treat ovarian cancer. Her research has uncovered a drug combination, now in clinical trials, that’s showing promise. Using a five-year $1.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, she hopes to find better ways to predict which women will benefit from this drug combination.

“We’re trying to decide who is a good candidate for the immune therapies,” Adams says. “Being able to identify factors that predict success for a particular patient would be extremely helpful.”

The drug combination that Adams discovered pairs a PARP inhibitor with an immune antibody. Both drugs have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The PARP inhibitor kills ovarian tumor cells, while the immune antibody spurs healthy immune cells to clear the dead tumor cells.

Adams’ studies showed that this drug combination was highly effective in cancer models, and those results enabled her to launch the clinical trial for people. The clinical trial opened at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center and is currently open in Ohio, Virginia and Florida through the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network. “This clinical trial wouldn’t have been possible,” Adams says, “without the [financial] support from the Oxnard Foundation and the Surface family.”

Based on early results from the clinical trial at UNM, the National Cancer Institute is testing this combination in a larger group of women with recurrent ovarian cancer. In October 2019, the NCI opened this second follow-up clinical trial across the country through the NRG Clinical Research Consortium and Adams is serving as the national study chair. 

Adams’ UNM clinical trial was also one of the first to be selected for additional scientific study. Her grant from the NCI was awarded through the Cancer Immune Monitoring and Analysis Centers program, one of the NCI’s Cancer Moonshot Initiatives. She will work with MD Anderson Cancer Center to better understand how the drugs in her combination work together.

Adams suspects that the PARP inhibitor may behave differently when used with the immune antibody and hopes to discover the chemical reactions in ovarian tumor cells that are affected by the drugs. “If we can understand how to leverage these alternate mechanisms of action,” she says, “we can get more out of the drugs we already have.”

Ultimately, she hopes to find a predictive biomarker – a pattern of proteins that would tell a doctor whether the tumor would respond more strongly to the drug combination. “This grant will drive the science in parallel with the clinical trial,” Adams says. “And it’s important to me to make sure that we’re making clinical decisions based on evidence, that we’re grounded in science.”

Sarah Adams, MD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Division of Gynecologic Oncology, at the UNM School of Medicine, and holds The Victor and Ruby Hansen Surface Endowed Professorship in Ovarian Cancer Research.

The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health supported the research reported in this publication under Award Number 1R37CA229221-01A1, Principal Investigator: Sarah Foster Adams, MD. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.