World-class scholars

Drs. Mahadevan, Cranmer and Swart
Drs. Mahadevan, Cranmer and Swart

About the Phoenix Friends

Since 1986, the Phoenix Friends of the Arizona Cancer Center have supported scientific research at the Arizona Cancer Center to help transform the future of cancer care. In the past, funds raised by the Friends have gone toward new laboratory equipment, patient support materials, endowed chair positions and more. Last year, the funds were used for a new program: the Phoenix Friends Scholar Program.

The Phoenix Friends Scholar Program supports world-class physician-scientists who show extraordinary potential for significantly advancing cancer treatments. The 2009 Phoenix Friends Scholars are Lee Cranmer, MD, PhD; Daruka Mahadevan, MD, PhD; and Rachel Swart, MD, PhD. In addition to seeing patients, each of the Scholars is actively involved in novel drug development and translational research aimed at taking laboratory discoveries to clinical treatment settings.

“It really is an honor,” Dr. Cranmer said. “It was a contribution to what we’re doing and it made us feel very valued. We’re in the trenches and it was tremendous for them to say, ‘we’re going to support you in a very practical way.’ The Phoenix Friends are making our ideas happen. We are incredibly appreciative of the opportunity that the Phoenix Friends have made possible.”

Join the Phoenix Friends of the Arizona Cancer Center for their 24th annual fundraising event: An Evening with the Friends 2010

What: A gourmet dinner, hosted bar and dancing as well as a silent auction for luxurious trips, trendy and vintage jewelry, inspiring art, sports and spa packages and more.

When: 6 p.m. Saturday, March 27

Where: JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, 5350 E. Marriott Dr., Phoenix

Tickets: $250 per person or $2,500 per table of ten

Fundraising: The net proceeds from this event will benefit the 2010 Phoenix Friends Scholar Program at the Arizona Cancer Center.

More Information: www.phoenixfriends.org

Lee Cranmer, MD, PhD

Dr. Cranmer is an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and a medical oncologist who treats Arizona Cancer Center patients with complicated and advanced forms of skin cancer or bone and soft tissue sarcomas. He also practices general internal medicine, general hematology and inpatient adult bone marrow/stem cell transplant.

Dr. Cranmer conducts clinical research in melanoma and sarcomas and maintains an extensive panel of active therapeutic clinical trials for patients with these disorders. In the laboratory, his research examines novel drugs to treat sarcomas. He also investigates the biology of melanoma, with special interest in the treatment of melanoma that has spread to the brain.

Thanks to the Phoenix Friends, Sherif Morgan, PhD, is joining Dr. Cranmer as a post-doctoral research fellow in translational cancer research. Together, they hope to move the research efforts forward.

“While I have many great ideas, I do not have the time to move them forward all by myself,” Dr. Cranmer acknowledged. “Additionally, isolation is poor for research. Research in an intellectually collaborative environment leads to unanticipated synergism. Dr. Morgan and I plan to be the core of a research team focused on bench-to-bedside efforts for the melanoma/sarcoma program at the Cancer Center.”

Dr. Morgan began working with Dr. Cranmer in August 2009 after completing the Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program at the Arizona Cancer Center. He’s currently working with Dr. Cranmer studying drug sensitivity in sarcoma patients and the biology of brain metastasis in melanoma.

“We’re using clinical specimens to conduct laboratory research and hopefully it makes the full circle and translates back to the clinic,” Dr. Cranmer said. “It’s a more applied approach to lab research.”

Patients will ultimately be the ones to benefit from this collaboration, as they will be able to take advantage of the new treatments developed.

“The common theme is that there’s a clinical question,” Dr. Cranmer said. “Everything we’re working on has a tie to the clinical work we do here.”

Daruka Mahadevan, MD, PhD

Dr. Mahadevan is the director of Drug Development and Translational Research and the director of the Phase I Clinical Trials Program at the Arizona Cancer Center. He is also an associate professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and he specializes in medical oncology
and internal medicine. He has a mixed clinic, which consists
of patients with pancreatic cancer, gastrointestinal stromal tumors, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, lymphomas and myelodysplastic syndrome, and he also sees patients participating in clinical trials.

With a PhD in structural biology, Dr. Mahadevan is able to use patient biopsy samples to discover novel therapeutic targets and design drugs to the targets using a structure-based drug discovery algorithm.

“We identify and validate targets, for which we can go ahead and build 3-D structures of proteins and come up with drugs that block them,” he explained. “We’ve done it quite well for several targets. We’ve discovered and developed drugs and patented them.”

As part of the Arizona Cancer Center’s Specialized Program of Research Excellence (SPORE) in lymphoma, Dr. Mahadevan began working on T-cell lymphoma, which is a very aggressive disease and has no standard of care. With the help of a medicinal chemist, he designed a molecule called MP470, a c-Kit/PDGFR tyrosine kinase inhibitor.

“We tested our compound in T-cell lymphoma and we see wonderful activity, great activity,” he said. “We think it’s a great drug that will work for T-cell lymphoma.”

In a Phase I trial, MP470 demonstrated safety and activity in solid tumors. He’s now working to take it to a Phase II trial in aggressive T-cell lymphomas. Dr. Mahadevan has several other compounds in development, including one that he thinks holds great promise as a general cancer-fighting drug.

“We have shown that this particular drug works for lots of different cancers, including pancreatic cancer, at least in the lab,” he said. 

Thanks to the programs Dr. Mahadevan leads, Arizona Cancer Center patients who have failed traditional therapies are able to take advantage of new, targeted drugs well before they are available to the general public.

“We’re finding better targets; we’re finding better drugs,” he said. “I’m interested in discovering new drugs in the lab and partnering with drug companies to bring the best possible drugs to our patients here.”

Rachel Swart, MD, PhD

Dr. Swart is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. Her clinical practice at the Arizona Cancer Center at UMC North and UMC Orange Grove focuses on all stages of breast cancer and Phase I clinical trials. She is currently conducting two clinical trials studying the safety and effectiveness of new drug combinations for patients with metastatic breast cancer and other solid tumors.

In the laboratory, Dr. Swart’s research interests include new drug development and discovering ways to know in advance whether a patient will benefit from a specific treatment. She wants to be able to determine the effectiveness of a treatment well before current tests can tell us. The goal is to know from a blood test what particular treatments will work for a patient, saving valuable time and ultimately lives.

“How do we know who will have a response earlier rather than just waiting around and doing CAT scans in 12 weeks? That’s really where we’re pushing things,” she said. “How do we know a targeted drug is working and who should we be giving that drug to?”

Dr. Swart is working on the identification of predictive and prognostic markers on circulating tumor cells (CTC) and circulating endothelial cells (CEC), which are found in the blood stream and play a role in metastasis and tumor growth. She uses blood samples from patients with metastatic breast cancer and other women’s cancers to study CTCs and CECs in order to look for new ways to identify response to therapy.

“The idea is to find out who is responding to the treatment by using a biomarker,” she said. “That’s what our lab is focusing on - trying to correlate a biomarker to see who is going to respond to treatment, because if you can figure that out, then you know what treatment to give them.”

Dr. Swart’s research is on the leading edge of the push for targeted health care.

“This whole concept of CTC and CEC is still very young and upcoming,” she said. “It’s pretty much on the forefront of where personalized medicine is going to go.”