A possible medical breakthrough has a Connecticut connection.
Every year 200,000 to 300,000 cancer patients develop a secondary tumor in their brains. For years, a new brain tumor was bad news for a patient. However, that may soon change thanks to a grass-roots charity and a young researcher hoping to do turn her family's pain into a cure.
Every fall, hundreds in southeastern Connecticut participate in a walk. From six miles to 26 miles, each of those people are raising money to fight breast cancer. There are survivors, family members, friends, and even people in the midst of the fight.
The walk is organized by the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation.
“One hundred percent of gross fundraising dollars goes directly to breast cancer research and the way we do that is we have sponsors who pay for our operating costs,” Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation President Patti Burmahl said.
The Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation was founded by two friends in honor of an Old Saybrook mother of three, who lost her fight with breast cancer. In 10 years, they've raised $3.4 million and handed out 34 research grants.
Dr. John Lamattina helps choose who gets the money.
“We seek out new researchers, people who are at the start of their career,” LaMattina with Scientific Advisory Board said. “Those people have the most difficulty getting funds.”
They now get several dozen proposals every year and try to fund three or four cutting edge ideas in hopes of a big breakthrough.
“We're looking to influence young bright people,” LaMattina said.
“Funding saves lives,” Dr. Priscilla Brastianos, who works at Massachusetts General Hospital said. “Discoveries in the lab saves lives and funding from Terri Brodeur jump started my career it helped us build this program.”
Brastianos is the director of the brain metastases program at Mass General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She received her grant from the foundation in 2012. Brastianos said she wanted to perform genetic testing on patients with breast cancer, lung cancer and melanoma who then developed a tumor, or metastases, in their brain.
“Once cancer has spread to the brain approximately 50 percent of patients will die of the cancer that spreads, so it's a devastating complication of cancer,” Brastianos said.
Starting with the funding from the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation, Brastianos assembled a database of hundreds of tissue samples from around the world. She did testing on the primary tumor and the brain metastases to see if the genetics matched.
“Surprisingly what we found is that brain metastases are genetically different from the underlying cancer,” Brastianos said.
That's a big deal because the genetics of a tumor tell doctors what drugs to use to treat it. Before, people with a brain metastases were excluded from clinical trials because they were often too sick. Now, Brastianos is targeting a trial just for them.
“Historically, we haven't understood is why people are progressing only in the brain, basically not from here down,” Brastianos said. “And what we didn't know is if that's because the drugs weren't getting to the brain or is it because of genetic heterogeneity.”
Brastianos said it is because they should have been using different drugs. When she's not in the lab, Brastianos heads over to the hospital itself where she sees patients in a brain metastases clinic. It keeps her connected to the reality of the fight that it's real people, and real families dealing with these tumors.
But what's just as remarkable as her discoveries, is that it's not just other people's real families, it's her family.
“My grandmother was 23 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she was in medical school at that time, and she died when she was 29 years old,” Brastianos said.
Inspired to study cancer Brastianos went to medical school. Then her mom got sick.
“My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in medical school and she recently passed away of metastatic breast cancer, so I'm driven every day by the stories of my mother, my grandmother and my patients,” Brastianos said. “We desperately need to find better treatment options.”
Brastianos told Eyewitness News she hopes to know in the next year or two if she's right. If this researcher with seed money from a small Connecticut charity may have found something big.
“I miss my mother every day, she drives me, she inspires me. I dream for the day when I can walk in and tell a daughter that we have a cure for her mother,” Brastianos said. “I dream of that day.”
To find out more about the Terri Brodeur Breast Cancer Foundation, click here.
To learn more about the work being done by researchers at Breast Cancer Treatment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, click here.
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