Stephenson Cancer Center Physicians Earn Awards to Develop Clinical Trials for Uterine Cancer Patients

Two gynecologic oncologists at at OU Health have earned national research awards to develop concepts for new clinical trials, with a particular focus on uterine cancer, a disease that is on the rise.

Debra Richardson, M.D., was named a Scholar Investigator by the Gynecologic Oncology Group Foundation, one of 10 chosen nationwide. Camille Gunderson, M.D., was named one of 36 New Investigators by the GOG Foundation. Each receives a grant and stipend to support concept development of new clinical trials, travel to national meetings and service on committees within the GOG Foundation and NRG Oncology.

The aim of Richardson’s grant is to become the national principal investigator for a Phase 3 clinical trial. Her working concept focuses on treating uterine cancer with an existing form of chemotherapy and potentially adding a targeted drug to the regimen.

Richardson’s grant also includes a mentoring component. She will be mentored by her colleague at Stephenson Cancer Center, Kathleen Moore, M.D., associate director for clinical research. Richardson, in turn, will mentor three of the new investigators.

“To design a phase three trial, is extremely important,” Richardson said. “I also want to be a mentor because it’s important for me to give back just as people have helped me in my career. We need a robust group of investigators so that we can continue to improve the care of women suffering from gynecologic cancers.”

Gunderson, too, will be developing a clinical trial concept for a national proposal. Her niche in patient care is treating women with uterine cancer, one of the few cancers that is increasing in incidence and causing more deaths. For years, uterine cancer was not even in the top 10 causes of cancer deaths among women in the United States. Today, it is the fourth most common cancer diagnosed and the sixth most common cause of cancer death among U.S. , according to the American Cancer Society.

The rise in uterine cancer diagnoses reflects, in part, the growing prevalence of a major risk factor: obesity. In addition, Richardson said, physicians are diagnosing more high-risk and advanced stage uterine cancer than ever before. Uterine cancer is the most common cancer treated in Stephenson’s gynecologic oncology clinics.

There are two types of uterine cancer. Type 1, associated with obesity, is far more common and usually features a low-grade tumor. Type 2 is much more aggressive higher risk of metastasis and recurrence. Both types can be associated with a genetic syndrome that drastically increases the lifetime risk of uterine cancer. However, uterine cancer can be diagnosed early if women are aware of the symptoms and know their family history.

“One of the major symptoms of uterine cancer is abnormal vaginal bleeding, especially post-menopausal bleeding,” Richardson said. “Even a spot of blood after women have gone through menopause is not normal.”

Until recently, gynecologic oncologists had only one drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat uterine cancer. A combination therapy was recently approved by the FDA, through a clinical trial in which Stephenson Cancer Center participated.

New clinical trials are crucial because they can provide lifesaving paving the way toward newly approved drugs or new uses for existing drugs. The evidence is perhaps most apparent in pediatric cancers, Richardson said. Fifty years ago, the five-year survival for children diagnosed with cancer was around 10%. Today, survival has risen to 85%, largely because the majority of children with cancer go on a clinical trial. Unfortunately, less than 10% of adults with cancer in the United States go on a clinical trial, she said.

“The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends that all patients with cancer who are eligible for a clinical trial should be offered a trial,” Richardson said. “Clinical trials are the only way we’re going to improve cure rates and help people with cancer to live longer and better lives.”