I Spy: Designer Breast Cancer Drugs

The clinical trial producing personalized—more effective—treatments.

By Nancy F. Smith
breast cancer pink ribbon beaker drugs treatment chemo picture
Photograph: Amanda Rohde

Laura Esserman, MD, Director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at the University of California Medical School is determined to revolutionize how cancer drugs are developed. “The record for producing new cancer drugs is abysmal,” she says. “Fully 60 percent to 70 percent of late-stage cancer trials fail.” And among the 30 percent that don’t fail, many are marginally useful or less effective than existing drugs. Yet the cost of developing those drugs is staggering. It can take 10 years, a billion dollars and thousands of women as subjects. Esserman and Donald A. Berry, a biostatistician at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, designed the I-Spy-2 Phase II clinical trial, now underway, to reverse this record and get effective drugs onto the market quicker, for less money, and with fewer subjects.

To do that, they joined forces with a large group of researchers and some unlikely partners, including several pharmaceutical companies, the National Cancer Institute, Safeway Foundation, Quantum Leap Foundation, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to topple some old ideas about conducting clinical trials.

Narrowing Down the Test Population

The current practice of testing a drug on any and all breast cancer patients is often ineffective because breast cancer is not a single disease and a drug that is effective in one patient may not work in another. I-Spy-2 is designed to learn which drugs work on breast cancers with specific characteristics. “For every drug that goes through the trial, we’re trying to come up with a set of gene-based and molecular markers that we think will predict response,” Esserman says. “And we’re working with the FDA to make sure that these markers are useful for deciding on treatments beyond our trials.”

“We already know that targeted treatments work,” she continues. For example, some cancers are estrogen receptor positive (ER-positive), and some are estrogen receptor negative (ER-negative). An ER-positive cancer cell reacts to the presence of estrogen by ramping up and growing like crazy. An ER-negative cancer cell is more or less indifferent to the presence of estrogen. Some very good drugs have been developed to treat ER-positive cancers, including tamoxifen, taxol, aromatase inhibitors, anything that impedes the impact of estrogen on the cells. “More women with stage I and II and probably stage III breast cancer are surviving because of chemo-therapy and tamoxifen,” says Columbia University’s Barron H. Lerner, MD, author of The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America.

Testing Several Drugs at Once

Instead of testing one drug in each clinical trial, I-Spy-2 tests multiple drugs at once — up to five at any given time, with the goal of assessing as many as 12 before the trial is over. Each patient in the trial will get the standard of care required of her cancer—chemotherapy at the beginning of the treatment and surgery to remove the tumor at the end. In addition, each of five groups of patients, whose members have been screened for particular biological markers on their cancers, will be given one of the novel drugs in combination with taxol. The patients’ tumors are monitored with MRIs to see which respond best to the drugs being given. After a period of time, the drugs that are determined to be effective will be moved on to Phase III trials. Those that prove ineffective will be dropped and new ones will be introduced. “All of which means the trial is adaptive,” Esserman says. “If we start to see that Drug A works well for the hormone receptor subtypes, for example, the next patient like that that comes into the trial is more likely to get that drug. As a result, the trial starts to learn what works and what doesn’t.” After six months, the tumor, if any remains, is removed and evaluated. “In a traditional clinical trial, the results aren’t compiled until the trial is over, years after it began, but we collect data on the drug’s effectiveness and evaluate it all along,” Esserman says.

Choosing Subjects Who Might Benefit Most

First Published August 15, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


sandy turk09.05.2011

As a double mastectomy breast cancer survivor @ the age of 40, I am all for designing treatment options specifically for each patient. I was disagree with the article in the September, 2011 issue "A Breast Cancer You May Not Need To Treat" because I think any breast cancer should be treated ~ nothing should be left to the "wait and see" regarding cancer. To me, that is like being in front of someone that just pulled the plug on a grenade and not running ~ just waiting to see if it goes off or not!
Of course, it is each persons decision as to how they treat the disease. For me, I did the biopsies; I did the lumpectomy; I did the the mastectomy and the after treatment. I am not playing with my life ~ I am fighting for it!

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