Some Lung Cancer Patients See Big Breakthrough With New Drug
When Cindy Morris of Maryland Heights was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2016, it came as a complete surprise. She didn’t have any symptoms that screamed cancer; she originally went to the doctor just to check on a swollen lymph node.
That started a new journey for Morris, 57, who had previously been a hairstylist.
Morris tried various standard cancer treatments, including rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, as well as surgery to remove a brain tumor. She also participated in two clinical trials, but did not have much success — the tumors kept returning. She had cancer in her lungs, lymph nodes, adrenal glands and her spleen.
Then in 2019, the Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University became one of the first sites to study a new drug, called sotorasib, and its effect on lung cancer.
“I wanted to try anything. If it gave me a glimmer of hope, I wanted to do it,” Morris told St. Louis on the Air.
Treating her condition from the very beginning was Dr. Siddhartha Devarakonda, a medical oncologist. He is an assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine.
“When Cindy started the clinical trial, we were actually quite concerned about her: She was requiring a lot of pain medication, she was declining pretty quickly. And most of the treatments outside the realm of a clinical trial that were available for her had a very low chance of working,” Devarakonda recalled. “It was pretty much a last-ditch attempt, honestly, at that point.”
She quickly saw results. One week after starting the trial, she was able to cut her pain medications in half. Her tumors began to shrink in just three weeks.
Sotorasib, sold under the brand name Lumakras, earned FDA approval last month. It targets tumors caused by a specific DNA mutation.
Devarakonda explained on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air that researchers have been working to target this genetic mutation for 50 years.
“The gene that this drug goes after, KRAS, is something that we have known to be altered in cancer for almost five to six decades,” he said. “Now, the problem is that we've never been able to develop a drug that hits this protein to block it in a cancer cell.”
Because the mutation is found in approximately 13% of patients with lung adenocarcinoma, a common type of lung cancer, Devarakonda estimated that the drug could treat 20,000 to 30,000 Americans each year. It either shrank tumors or kept them from growing in 80% of the 126 patients in the trial.
That includes Morris. Two years after enrolling in the trial, she said she’s now back to her regular life: While she still experiences fatigue, she can take care of things around the house, shop for groceries and travel. She recently returned from a mission trip in Alaska, where she helped build a cabin.
She said her reasons for taking the mission trip were the same reasons for joining the clinical trial.
“If it can help other people, I'm more than willing to do it,” she said. “Basically, that's how I want to live my life and actually be remembered. I think that's a good legacy, helping other people.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.