Chris Duke: Fighting the Battle Against Cervical Cancer
Story By: Eliana Osborn
Annually, more than 500,00 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer globally and at any time, there are approximately 2.5M women living with the disease. Despite the availability of vaccines against HPV which make HPV-related cancers almost entirely preventable, more than 13,000 women in the US alone are diagnosed annually with cervical cancer and 4,200 women will succumb to the disease. The incidence of cervical cancer for Latina women in the United States is highest amongst all racial/ethnic groups, almost twice as high as non-Latina white women. In addition, Latina women have the 2nd highest mortality rate from cervical cancer (after black women), although mortality for Latina women is higher than black women in communities along the Texas-Mexico border.
Why is the rate of cervical cancer so high for Latinas? Unfortunately, there is a low rate of vaccination rates and cervical cancer screening in the Latina community due to a combination of factors, including fear associated with a lack of immigration status, embarrassment, lack of knowledge, lack of insurance and lack of English proficiency. As a result, in 2015, 2,000 Hispanic women were diagnosed and 600 died.
There has been little to no drug development in recent years in cervical cancer in part due to the relatively low number of cases compared to other cancer types and because of the expectation that vaccination against HPV would essentially eradicate the disease. In the last 30 years, there has only been 1 drug approved by the Food & Drug Administration to treat cervical cancer. In the meantime, women continue to die from the disease. This doesn’t need to happen, and Chris Duke is leading the fight to eradicate this disease once and for all.
Duke has only been at Advaxis since October 2016, but his career in the biotechnology industry started years earlier. After receiving a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Chemical Engineering from Rutgers University, he went on to earn an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. His current role as the Chief Operating Officer at Advaxis finds him combining all sides of his educational background while working for a company committed to finding a cure for cancer. Duke explains that his passion is focused on the patients that Advaxis treatments can help, saying ““Millions of women and their loved ones are currently struggling with cervical cancer, and they need new options. Not one of them should have to die from cervical cancer.”
Cervical cancer can be treated most successfully when found early, like most cancers. Yearly gynecological checkups can catch aberrant cells early on. For patients with more locally-advanced disease, chemotherapy and radiation are most effective; however, even with successful treatment, approximately 50% of women will have a recurrence of cervical cancer or death within 4 years depending on their initial stage of disease. Upon recurrence, if the disease has metastasized, the 5-year survival rate is a mere 15%.
Hispanic women have higher mortality rates than white women with cervical cancer because the disease is often found at a later stage. Early detection, through routine screening, means highly treatable cancer. Unfortunately, many Latinas don’t get a yearly gynecological visit. Many also don’t follow up on abnormal test results, allowing slow growing cervical cancer cells to progress. Once a cancer becomes metastatic, or spreads outside the area where it first appeared in the body, it becomes much harder to treat.
Most people know about the cancer treatments that have been around for decades, including chemotherapy and radiation. While these therapies have helped and continue to help countless patients, they are typically not very targeted in their approach and often come with significant side effects. There is a new wave of therapies beginning to emerge which has shifted the way in which physicians treat cancer. This approach, referred to as immunotherapy, is quickly becoming the future of cancer research.
Immunotherapy is a new class of cancer treatment that works to harness the power of an individual’s own immune system to fight cancer. Cancers often hide and protect themselves from the immune system, but immunotherapies have shown the potential to overcome these challenges. Because of the immune system’s unique properties, these therapies may hold greater potential than current treatment approaches to fight cancer more powerfully, to offer longer-term protection against the disease, to have fewer side effects, and to benefit more patients with more cancer types.
Advaxis, Inc. is developing its own novel immunotherapeutic approach to fight cancer. This proprietary platform technology, referred to as Lm Technology™ , uses a highly attenuated, bioengineered strain of Listeria monocytogenes (Lm) bacteria to teach the immune system to view tumor cells as potentially bacterial-infected cells and eliminate them. This highly targeted approach is designed to stimulate cancer-fighting T-cells directed against cancer antigens and reduce factors that protect the tumor microenvironment from immunologic attack and contribute to tumor growth.
In October 2016, Advaxis issued a press release highlighting data from a Phase 2 study evaluating its lead Lmdrug candidate, axalimogene filolisbac in patients with persistent or recurrent metastatic carcinoma of the cervical cancer, the toughest type to treat with the worst prognosis. The results were very encouraging, with a 52% increase in 12-month overall survival being observed. These groundbreaking findings led to the initiation of a Phase 3 study, the final step before FDA approval. (SOURCE)
Advaxis’ Phase 3 study, the AIM2CERV study, is currently enrolling. This study is designed for high-risk, locally advanced cervical cancer, and is approaching the cure in a different way. Focused on women who have completed their cancer treatment and have been declared “cancer free” by their physicians, the goal of this study is to determine if axalimogene filolisbac can help women live longer without their disease returning. Duke explains the approach, “While some women with cervical cancer are considered cancer-free after chemotherapy and radiation, a significant number will experience a recurrence of the disease that is often more aggressive and results in a poor prognosis. And when cervical cancer comes back, it is inevitably fatal. Our purpose with AIM2CERV is to see if axalimogene filolisbac can prevent recurrence from ever happening, and let these women enjoy the rest of their lives.” The study is being conducted in almost 20 countries around the world, including several countries in North America and Latin America. More information on the study, and how to enroll, can be found by visiting www.aim2cerv.com or calling 1-844-755-5807
The company also recently announced plans to initiate another study with axalimogene filolisbac in combination with Bristol-Myers Squibb’s PD-1 immune checkpoint inhibitor, Opdivo® (nivolumab), in women living with recurrent metastatic cervical cancer. This study is expected to start in the second half of 2017.
“Advaxis is proud to be developing axalimogene filolisbac as a potential treatment for women living with cervical cancer. This community has been underserved for too long and deserves the innovation and advancements that can allow them to better fight their disease. In addition to our cervical cancer program, we are committed to supporting the patient community and patient organizations in an effort to empower women to become their own advocates and take control of their health whether it be through becoming vaccinated, obtaining regular gynecological exams or making more informed cancer treatment decisions.”
Today, cervical cancer and other cancers caused by infectious agents disproportionately affect the Latino community. The work that Chris Duke and Advaxis are doing is trying to change this. Education about vaccines and regular cervical cancer screening will go a long way towards reducing the prevalence of the disease in the Latina community. But if cervical cancer strikes, the immunotherapy that Advaxis is developing may have the ability to stop the progression, and prevent the return of the disease. This is a remarkable advancement towards reducing mortality.