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VCU Massey Cancer Center


Massey clinical trial will test experimental immunotherapy in breast cancer patients before chemotherapy and surgery

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Harry Bear, M.D., Ph.D., (left) is the principal investigator on clinical trial MCC-15-11083.

A phase 2 clinical trial at VCU Massey Cancer Center is testing the benefits of adding an experimental immunotherapy combination prior to standard chemotherapy and surgery for breast cancer patients. The trial was developed by Massey and is based on laboratory research led by Harry Bear, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Division of Surgical Oncology at Massey, Walter Lawrence, Jr. Chair in Surgical Oncology and member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at Massey.

The study, which opened in January 2017, is recruiting patients with locally advanced, HER2-negative breast cancer, for whom neoadjuvant chemotherapy is being recommended as standard treatment. Neoadjuvant therapies are therapies given to shrink tumors before surgery.

Immunotherapy, which is treatment that activates the body’s immune system to target and destroy cancer cells, has proven to be effective against many forms of cancer. Because cancer cells are mutated versions of healthy cells, many are able to be recognized and attacked by the immune system. But many cancers have found ways to evade immune attack.

Previous clinical trials have shown that breast cancers with evidence of a brisk immune response in the tumor also respond better to neoadjuvant chemotherapy. This gives patients a greater chance of having a complete response to therapy, meaning that there is no detectable cancer at the time of surgery. Recent studies have also found that combining immune activating drugs with chemotherapy may increase the complete response rate.

Laboratory tests conducted by Bear and others have shown that the addition of decitabine increases the efficacy of immune therapy in mouse models of breast cancer.

“Patients receiving pre-operative chemotherapy who demonstrate a complete response have the highest cure rates, and this study seeks to increase a patient’s chance for a complete response by using immunotherapy to improve the immune system’s reaction to breast cancer,” Bear said.

Trial participants will receive a month-long course of immunotherapy using an experimental combination of two drugs. First, patients will undergo a needle biopsy of their breast tumor, then receive decitabine for four days followed by two doses of pembrolizumab given two weeks apart. A second needle biopsy will be done after the last dose of pembrolizumab.

The trial is assessing whether decitabine may increase the amount of tumor antigen targeted by a patient’s immune response and decrease immune suppression by other white blood cells. Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) blocks suppression of T lymphocytes by the cancer and improves the specific ability of lymphocytes to seek out and kill tumor cells. The two biopsy samples will allow investigators to see if the experimental combination leads to an enhanced immune response to the cancer.

Decitabine has previously been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of cancers in the blood and bone marrow. Pembrolizumab received FDA approval for the treatment of advanced melanoma, certain forms of advanced lung cancer and other cancers. The combination of these two drugs has not yet been approved by the FDA for treating breast cancer.

After being treated with immunotherapy, trial participants will then undergo one of two standard treatment regimens for HER2-negative breast cancers, which includes neoadjuvant chemotherapy for about five months, followed by surgery, if possible.

As of mid-April, there were five participants enrolled, and the study will temporarily close after 11 patients enroll in order to perform initial safety and toxicity analyses. The trial has a maximum of 50 patients and an expected duration of three years.

Participants will be followed by the study team for approximately one month following surgery or one month following the final chemotherapy treatment. There is no long-term follow-up included in this study, but patients will continue to schedule follow-up appointments with their oncologists.

As part of the trial, participants will not be charged for pembrolizumab, decitabine, costs related to needle biopsies or any blood samples used for research purposes. The trial is currently available only at Massey, but may expand to other sites later this year.

Anyone with further questions or an interest in participating in the trial (MCC-15-11083) can contact the Solid Tumor Investigator Initiated Trials team (SIIT) at and 804-628-9238, or Harry Bear, M.D., Ph.D., at 804-828-9325 and

More information about clinical trials available at Massey can be found on Massey’s website.

Written by: Blake Belden

Posted on: April 27, 2018

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