UVM plays major role in hormone therapy breast cancer trial

The UVM Medical Center is playing a big role in a clinical trial that uses a new approach to treating breast cancer with immunotherapy.

"Chemo is the worst part of their breast cancer adventure," said Dr. Marie Wood, an oncologist at UVM.

Which is why it's a heavy conversation between doctors and their patients the moment a woman learns she has breast cancer. "They have low counts and that puts them at risk for infections and fatigue. They have almost universal hair loss," Wood said.

Those are among many other issues, short and long term, when it comes to chemotherapy. That's why Dr. Wood is calling a new clinical trial that avoids chemo treatment a major break through. But she says the type of patient eligible for the trial is very specific. "Women who have tumors less than two centimeters, no cancer in nodes, and have what's called a receptor positive tumor," she said.

The hospital says tens of thousands of women land in that diagnosis of breast cancer. "A total of 10,000 women we enrolled in the study between 2006 and 2010, but you can see we aren't getting results until 2018," Wood said.

For the national study, doctors compared patients in two separate groups -- those who just got endocrine therapy, and those who received the hormone therapy paired with chemo. Based on a DNA test that gives patients a score of one to 100. Anyone who landed between 11 and 25 qualified for the clinical trial. "Who really needs to have chemo added to endocrine therapy? Woods said.

UVM participated with a number of other hospitals across the country to collect data from patients.

"You take a risk when you sign that consent form," Woods said. She says she's grateful Vermonters trusted the hospital to take part in a study that will impact generations to come. "They may be getting a superior strategy, but they may not. But they're also helping the next generation of women with breast cancer."

The clinical trial was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. Researchers believe they will use this approach for more forms of cancer, which could mean treatment changes in the future.