Researcher Spotlight: Conquering Cancer With Dr. Heske

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Sometimes, cancer treatments that initially appear promising begin to lose their effectiveness. This is due to the ability diseases like cancer have to develop resistance to treatments over time and, essentially, outsmart them. But what if there were ways to ensure this didn’t happen? What if doctors could guarantee promising new treatments stayed promising and led to better outcomes for their patients?

Christine Heske, MD, Clinical Fellow at the National Cancer Institute, is tackling this question as it relates to rhabdomyosarcoma, a tumor that strikes young children and adolescents. Rhabdomyosarcoma is a type of soft-tissue sarcoma that affects muscle tissue, and for patients with metastatic or recurrent disease, treatment options are extremely limited. One class of drugs called IGF-1 receptor antibodies has caused tumors to shrink in some patients with rhabdomyosarcoma, but ultimately, the tumors develop resistance to the drug.

Thanks to her 2014 Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO Young Investigator Award, Dr. Heske has been examining strategies to counteract this. “I have been looking at ways to overcome that resistance so that we can potentially use combination drug therapy,” said Dr. Heske. “That means using the IGF-1 receptor inhibitor plus another agent to keep the tumors responding in this group of patients.”

Dr. Heske’s study is still in process, but the preliminary findings are encouraging. She and her team have identified something some of the resistant tumors share: activity of a receptor called PDGFR-beta. The activity of this receptor could be important to the tumors’ resilience. With this knowledge, they are now investigating ways to suppress PDGFR-beta and keep the tumors responding to treatment.

If Dr. Heske’s team is successful, their results could mean more effective treatment and increased survival rates for patients with rhabdomyo­sarcoma.

“The work that I’ve been doing is very translational,” said Dr. Heske. “Uncovering science in the lab that can help us to better treat patients is so rewarding; finding discoveries that are immediately applicable to the care of patients is what keeps me going.”

Dr. Heske notes the pivotal role her grant has played in her career development: “Having the funding from this grant has been a really amazing opportunity,” said Dr. Heske. “I think I’m probably among many young investigators who feel that this grant has made an enormous impact on our ability to stay in the field.” ■

Dr. Heske’s Conquer Cancer Foundation of ASCO Young Investigator Award was supported by the WWWW Foundation, Inc. (QuadW).

© 2015. American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.