Ma Laboratory

Waging War on Lung Cancer - CLINICAL TRIALS EXPAND TO IMPROVE OUTCOMES

Perplexing questions as to why some people get cancer and some don’t — why some people respond to certain treatments while others do not — have baffled scientists for decades. But thanks to research being conducted by faculty in the Sara Crile Allen and James Frederick Allen Comprehensive Lung Cancer Program, lung cancers once shrouded in mystery are increasingly revealing clues for diagnosis, treatment, and, potentially, cures. 

This is good news for West Virginia residents, considering the state has one of the highest incidence rates of lung cancer in the nation. Even more concerning, West Virginia’s lung cancer mortality rate is significantly higher than the national average, according to 2012 cancer registry data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Patrick Ma joined the WVU Cancer Institute in December 2014 to lead the Lung Cancer Program in conducting clinical trials to advance lung cancer cure rates.

New Physician Scientist Helps Lead the Way

The December 2014 arrival of Patrick C. Ma, MD, MS, as co-leader of the Lung Cancer Program has intensified the quality and quantity of clinical trials and translational research for lung cancer within the WVU Cancer Institute. Dr. Ma came to WVU from the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute, where he was director of Aerodigestive Oncology Translational Research.


Clinical trials offer patients novel treatments that are not yet available through standard care. They shed light on the biological mechanisms and progression of cancer, translating these discoveries into new therapies to treat and prevent diseases. In many cases, they can improve a patient’s length or quality of life, Ma noted.

Collaborating with program co-leader Yon Rojanasakul, PhD, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the WVU Cancer Institute, Ma has been the catalyst for building momentum behind a multidisciplinary research team and expanded the portfolio of lung cancer clinical trials available to patients at WVU. “Our current clinical trial portfolio in lung cancer compares very well with other leading academic cancer centers in the country,” he said.

“Clinical trial access offers our patients the most advanced cancer therapies, especially in the emerging area of cancer immunotherapy and molecular genomics-guided precision therapies.”
A medical oncologist, Ma stressed the importance of the WVU Cancer Institute’s multidisciplinary approach to cancer care.

“We conduct discussion and review of our lung cancer patient cases and regularly review options for clinical trial studies and patient eligibility,” he explained. “This multidisciplinary teamwork is crucial to our excellence in clinical care, quality control, and improvement. It also fosters best practices and a sense of purpose and strength within our caregiver team.”

More on the Horizon

According to Ma, our information age and understanding of the human genome are accelerating the pace of cancer research. “The genomics capability and next generation sequencing — it’s all coming together in recent years to pave the way for the arrival of a new era of personalized treatment in precision oncology.”Ma stated that recent advancements in targeted therapies and immunotherapy will help address lung cancer disparities in West Virginia by further advancing cure rates, with some metastatic cancer patients surviving beyond three to five years.
Immunotherapy, which works to awaken a patient’s immune system, will dominate the cancer therapeutics field in the next five to 10 years, Ma predicted. “It’s only the dawn of cancer immunotherapy. We are just witnessing the first glimpse of the power of our anti-cancer capability in one’s immune system, which can impact not only tumor response but overall survival rate as well,” he said. “We’re taking away the blindfold that tumor cells put on the immune cells, effectively reactivating them to attack the cancer cells.”

He also mentioned current leading-edge clinical trials that use combination immunotherapies as well as combining immunotherapy with chemotherapy, taking the battle to cancer cells more powerfully and proactively. “Novel immunotherapy attacks tumor cells in a less toxic manner than just chemotherapy and with less dangerous side effects.”
Drug combinations also are being designed strategically to enable each drug to act in a stronger manner for a more powerful punch.

On the horizon is research that will help scientists use molecular profiling to better understand changes in tumor cells throughout treatment and the molecular makeup of residual tumors (remaining after surgery or treatment) for more personalized treatment.
The Lung Cancer Program offers patients the most advanced cancer treatment and best possible access to personalized, patient-centered therapeutics for improved overall outcomes. “We’re optimistic about improving poor lung cancer survival outcomes not just in West Virginia but also nationwide,” Ma said.
He added, “It’s not unrealistic or unreasonable to start talking about potential cures in previously incurable lung cancers. We’re defying the odds one patient at a time.”