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Bringing new cancer treatments to the clinic

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2015 - Spring


In many ways, Patricia M. LoRusso, D.O., has realized one of her main missions in life—bringing the latest therapies to people with advanced cancers through clinical trials. For many patients, a few months can make a difference and help them get to the next new treatment.

“We saw so many patients die of melanoma within a couple of months of phenomenal immunotherapies going into clinical investigation,” said LoRusso, who joined Yale Cancer Center in August 2014 as associate director of innovative medicine. “It isn’t over until it’s over, and we often don’t know what the next drug is going to offer.”

Among her accomplishments, LoRusso heads one of the first multi-institutional investigator-initiated personalized medicine clinical trials, in collaboration with national melanoma leaders, as part of her role as co-leader of the Stand Up to Cancer/Melanoma Research Alliance Melanoma Dream Team. She came to Yale from Wayne State University’s Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, where she was director of the Phase I Clinical Trials program and part of the Eisenberg Center for Translational Therapeutics.

At Yale she sees her role as a mix of clinical research and translational medicine, in which she can apply her experience developing novel drug therapies and designing clinical trials.

For LoRusso, bringing novel therapeutics to the clinic is highly personal. She was still in high school when she lost her mother to cancer. A short time later, her father succumbed to lung cancer. Through her grief, LoRusso realized her life’s path—to become a physician and help improve outcomes for people with cancer.

“It became a defining moment in my life,” said LoRusso, who has more than 25 years of expertise in medical oncology, drug development, and early-phase clinical trials. “At the time my parents died, there weren’t good therapies, and I was determined to develop new, better drugs to treat cancer.”

Today, the Detroit native is internationally recognized for bringing promising early-stage anticancer therapeutics to the clinic, among them TDM-1, now known as ado-trastuzumab emtansine, or Kadcyla®. As a clinical investigator assisting Genentech in developing Kadcyla, she studied “such questions as whether the drug impacts on conduction mechanisms of the heart, how it is dosed in patients with liver dysfunction, how it interacts with other agents in terms of toxicity and potential efficacy.”

Clinical trials, she said, have evolved in such a way that there is less distinction between Phase I and II trials. This means more targeted, tumor-specific therapies are being studied and at earlier stages. LoRusso and other researchers are seeking patients with specific tumor types as they “carry out clinical trials to answer pivotal clinical questions in anticipation of FDA submission and eventual approval of drugs.”

Most of the patients LoRusso and her team care for have recurrent cancers that have defied conventional treatments.

“It’s a huge motivator when you can help [extend the life of] a patient who would otherwise be dying of advanced cancer,” she said. Even more motivating are those occasions when she cannot help them at all. “You realize how much harder you have to work.”

But she sees the future as bright, thanks in large part to a greater understanding of the biology and genomics of the disease. “This is undoubtedly the most exciting time to be developing new cancer drugs, and we are making progress,” said LoRusso. “My mother would have had a much better prognosis and may actually have been cured of her disease had she been diagnosed in 2014 instead of 1970.”

LoRusso, who earned her doctorate in osteopathic medicine at Michigan State University in 1981, lives in Hamden with her husband, Julian. They have three (now adult) adopted children. “They are my best friends, and we have a lot of fun together.”