Conquering Women’s Cancers

A new leadership group at Massachusetts General Hospital is coordinating an all-out effort to conquer cancers of the female reproductive system — from early detection to personalized treatment options.

“This year, the biggest fundamental change in our gynecologic cancer research initiative has been creating an organized leadership group representing surgery, medicine and basic research,” said Eric Eisenhauer, MD (at left in photo), the new chief of the Division of Gynecologic Cancer, who joined the Vincent Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology in September 2018.

Meeting weekly in the Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology (VCRB), the Gynecologic Oncology Leadership Group also includes scientist Bo Rueda, PhD (at center), director of the VCRB, who conducts basic research in gynecologic cancer and also oversees an extensive tumor bank, a treasure trove for lab investigators.

The third specialist is medical oncologist David Spriggs, MD (at right), director of the Gynecologic Cancer Program at the Mass General Cancer Center, who offers systemic treatment options such as chemotherapy and immunotherapy for women’s cancers.

In addition, a forum of approximately 15 physicians and scientists from Mass General and MIT meets monthly. Together, they are speeding the translation of lab discoveries into new therapies — a “bench to bedside” discovery cycle called translational research. It involves many intricate steps. Lab findings about molecules, genes and cells are leveraged to identify possible drug interventions, which are tested in cell lines, then animals and possibly human patients.

A key goal is to develop immunotherapies for ovarian cancer. Diagnosed in 20,000 U.S. women each year, it causes more deaths than any other gynecologic cancer.

“To create effective immunotherapies, scientists must understand the mechanisms the immune system normally uses to surveil the body for cancer and how cancer cells fool the immune system into ignoring them,” said Dr. Eisenhauer. “One aim of immunotherapy is to block cancer cells’ ability to avoid the immune system, allowing the immune system to recognize and destroy cancer cells as foreign invaders.”

At the heart of this approach is personalized medicine. All ovarian cancer patients at Mass General undergo genetic testing for nine hereditary mutations, including BRCA1 and BRAC2. Treatments are tailored to their genetic profile as well robust responses to multi-modality protocols emerging from clinical studies nationwide.

There is considerable reason for hope. “Thirty years ago, the life expectancy of a woman with ovarian cancer was less than 2 years,” said Dr. Eisenhauer. “Today, effective surgery and novel medical therapies allow patients to live on average 6 to 10 years, and emerging treatments promise to push that out even further.”

“Many of these positive results are possible because of The Vincent Memorial Hospital Foundation, which for nearly 25 years has provided funding for the VCRB and resources for Vincent fellows and trainees,” he said. “The Vincent’s support is making a huge difference.”

Editor’s note: The newly formed Gynecologic Oncology Leadership Group brings together three physicians/scientists whose career paths have intersected in the past. Eric Eisenhauer’s specialty career in OB/GYN began in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Massachusetts General Hospital Integrated Residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology, a program in which he performed lab research with Bo Rueda in the Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology. He subsequently served a fellowship in gynecologic oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, working there with medical oncologist David Spriggs, who now directs Mass General’s Gynecologic Cancer Program. After heading the gynecologic oncology division at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Eisenhauer has returned to Mass General, where he helped shape the research group that is seeking new ways to combat gynecologic cancers.