Women in Cancer: An Interview with Alexandra Drakaki, MD PhD

Dr. Alexandra Drakaki, MD, PHD, is a primary investigator of several clinical trials at UCLA.  She has achieved a number of successes in hematology and oncology, which have lead to significant breakthroughs and approval of novel drugs in the field. Fortunately, Dr. Drakaki made some time to answer a few questions for PHASE ONE. 

Q: What is the best cancer prevention tip you have ever shared and/or received?

Cancer is the disease of our time. People used to die from infections and cardiovascular disease in theirs forties and fifties, but now they live longer so they have higher risk of developing cancer. If we knew how to prevent it, nobody would have had cancer; however we know a few "tips." Lifestyle intervention strategies that may help to decrease risk of several cancers include avoiding smoking, alcohol, and obesity. Good sleep, meditation, and exercise play an important role as well in decreasing cancer recurrences as proven by many clinical trials in certain types of cancer, like breast cancer. However, my favorite tip that I ever received is: "Laughing is the best cancer prevention strategy."

Q: Do you have a favorite patient survivor story?

There are many wonderful stories. One of my special ones, was Ms. X. I met her in July 2014. She was in her late forties at the time, a beautiful lady full of life. As soon as I introduced myself to her as her new oncologist, I then gave her the bad news that her cancer had recurred and it was going to be terminal. Our relationship went through waves as you can imagine. She refused to accept the news. Her only son had just graduated from high school - she had to be there for him. We looked through the few available studies at the time for her rare cancer and eventually I enrolled her in a Phase I clinical trial. Time went by and we bonded like family. Her widespread cancer melted away within the first few cycles and now we are getting ready for her son's graduation from college. She is going to be proud, but most importantly, she is going to be there, four years later...cancer free!

Q: Is there a problem with conventional cancer screenings for certain types of cancer? 

In 2018, the simple answer is, "no." There is no problem with conventional screenings for certain types of cancer. Although, I would say the bigger issue is the lack of  screening modalities for cancer. One of the first screening tests, that positively proved itself with life saving results for early detection, was the Papanikolaou test for cervical cancer, followed by mammograms for  breast cancer, colonoscopies for colorectal cancer, PSA for prostate cancer (with a lot of debate about its use since it may identify "insignificant" cancers), and recently a CT of the chest for lung cancer screenings in high risk patients. Accordingly, and as you can see, the major problem in detecting cancer at an early stage is due to the lack of screening modalities for most cancer types. Although, there is hope that with the way research is progressing, we will be able to detect malignancies at an earlier stage through a simple urine, stool or blood test.

The Future of Urotheliar Cancer: An Interview with Dr. Karim Chamie. A 2013 PHASE ONE grant recipient

In 2013, PHASE ONE granted Dr. Karim Chamie, with UCLA Urology, a grant for $145,350 to help combat the rapid increase in urothelial carcinoma. Here is a recent update:

Q: Would you briefly describe your research?

In July 2012, I was appointed as Assistant Professor of Urology and my first grant out of fellowship was a PHASE ONE Foundation Award. I was awarded for the very innovative, but also very risky work of developing a novel reverse polymer gel matrix. This matrix is liquid in cold temperatures and solidifies at body temperature. Therefore, it can be mixed with any chemotherapeutic agent, while on ice, and quickly solidifies within a cavity of interest in the human body. The thought was to instill this into any cavity of interest to better deliver site-specific, anti-cancer therapy. PHASE ONE funded pre-clinical (mouse and porcine models) and clinical trials (compassionate use in humans) instilling this gel mixed with mitomycin C (a common chemotherapy for low-grade urothelial carcinoma) into the upper urothelial tract (renal pelvis and ureter). We have presented our findings at the American Urological Association, Society of Urologic Oncology, and at European Association of Urology meetings. Our findings have been published in peer-reviewed journals and have directly led to an IND application and a pivotal market-directed study—an international multi-institution phase III trial clinical trial measuring the efficacy of this novel compound for patients with low-grade upper tract urothelial carcinoma. The PHASE ONE Foundation has been essential in seeing this idea develop into a Phase III clinical trial. 

Q: What are the next steps?

We are now expanding the indication for high-grade urothelial carcinoma by examining the utility of combining a checkpoint inhibitor and the hydrogel polymer as local treatment. We have submitted a research proposal to the NCI through the investigative grant mechanism to determine the permeability and the subsequent effects on immune cell infiltrates of a checkpoint inhibitor that is delivered intravesically in a MB49 murine bladder cancer model. Preliminary data suggests that the checkpoint inhibitor does penetrate the bladder wall and demonstrate local efficacy without systemic toxicity. 

Q: What are your primary goals with your research?

My long-term goal is to develop, implement, and disseminate interventions that reduce the burden of disease for patients with genitourinary malignancies. With my recent promotion to Associate Professor, I want to thank the PHASE ONE Foundation for playing an instrumental role in early in my career. 

PHASE ONE Grants USC Iovine & Young Academy Visionary Gift to Develop New Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Track with Focus on Health Innovation

Seed funding will expand experiential cancer module to a four-year undergraduate track with emphasis in health innovation

LOS ANGELES, Nov.28, 2017 /PRNewswire/ -- The University of Southern California's Iovine and Young Academy (Academy) has received a $425,543 grant from Phase ONE Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cancer research, to expand the Academy's innovative immersive cancer module to a full-scale four-year undergraduate track that applies the Academy's proven interdisciplinary educational model to the field of health to drive innovation in patient care. The undergraduate track is looking to launch as early as Fall 2019.

With seed funding from Phase ONE, the Academy will build on the success and momentum of its immersive cancer module and broaden its interdisciplinary academic curriculum and co-curricular offerings in partnership with USC'sConvergent Science Initiative in Cancer (CSI-Cancer) led by Dr. Peter Kuhn and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Students will be immersed in an information-rich, hands-on learning ecosystem where they interact with teams of physicians, scientists, cancer patients, UX/UI designers, and graduate students to develop innovative health solutions to improve patient outcomes.

"Phase ONE's generous gift will help us equip and empower students and faculty to develop disruptive ideas to tackle our most challenging health problems," said Erica Muhl, founding executive director of the USC Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation and dean of the USC Roski School of Art and Design. "We are emboldened by Phase ONE's commitment to education and innovative research. Their gift ensures we have the resources to continue to provide best-in-class education and develop innovative, agile thinkers who will help to shape the future of the health industries."

"The future of cancer research rests on interdisciplinary innovation and collaboration," said Dr. Peter Kuhn, a dean's professor of biological sciences for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, professor of medicine for the Keck School of Medicine, professor of biomedical engineering and professor of aerospace & mechanical engineering for the Viterbi School of Engineering, and founding faculty for the Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience. "Academy students are nonlinear thinkers who are mentored by faculty and industry experts to disrupt the status quo in meaningful ways. By blending the Academy's human-centered design methodologies with biosciences, we can leverage the power of convergence to spark innovative approaches to the most intractable health problems."

The pilot cancer module was developed last year in partnership with CSI-Cancer and Dr. Kuhn's laboratory. Academy students worked with teams of faculty, physicians, and patients in Dr. Kuhn's lab as part of CSI-Cancer to help develop CancerBase, a revolutionary new online platform that allows cancer patients to track real-time biometric data and measure the effectiveness of cancer treatment. CancerBase was featured at former Vice President Joe Biden's Cancer Moonshot in June 2016, as well as former President Obama's White House South by South Lawn Festival in October 2016.

"It is Phase ONE's mission to invest in cutting-edge research that will significantly impact and improve the patient experience," said Royce Bergman, board chair of the Phase ONE Foundation. "The USC Iovine and Young Academy is clearly becoming a hotbed of ideas and innovation due to its collaborative and convergent framework. Dr. Kuhn's work with the students has already yielded immediate and startling results. We are confident this new program will open new possibilities for future cancer researchers and transform patient experiences for generations to come."

About USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy
The USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy was founded in 2013 by entrepreneurs Jimmy Iovine and Andre "Dr. Dre" Young to teach critical thinking, complex problem solving, and nurture unbridled creativity at the intersection of three essential areas: art and design; engineering and computer science; and business and venture management. The Academy program is an integrated, four-year Bachelor of Science degree that follows a cohort-based collaborative educational model. Students are trained to think seamlessly across disciplines and have access to cutting-edge creative spaces, industry experts, and unconventional learning opportunities. 

About Convergent Science Initiative in Cancer (CSI-Cancer)
The Convergent Science Initiative in Cancer (CSI-Cancer) at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Biosciences is focused on improving the lives of cancer patients through scientific insights relevant to individual patients. The initiative focuses on three areas: 1) quantifying the time evolution of the disease; 2) forecasting patient pathways; and 3) quantifying health. CSI-Cancer at USC is led by Dr. Peter Kuhn and each project is led by a team comprised of patients, medical doctors, scientists and students focused on solving the clinical challenge through basic science breakthroughs that can be translated into real world solutions.

About Phase ONE Foundation
PHASE ONE is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting groundbreaking Phase I and Phase 2 cancer clinical research, innovative education and treatment programs, while funding forward thinking leaders in the scientific and medical community.