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Zahi Mitri, MD, MS, assistant professor of medicine at the OHSU School of Medicine, is a medical oncologist and researcher focused on discovering and developing new therapeutics to improve outcomes for patients, particularly those with breast cancer.

Your research is being hailed as a game-changer in breast cancer treatment. How does the treatment work, and what are the latest results? 

We’re using a combination of drugs against metastatic, triple negative breast cancer, as an alternative to one-drug treatments, which have limitations. Our initial pilot study of 15 patients produced exciting results, and these findings allowed us to secure funding from the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to launch the full phase 2 trial (28 patients planned) that will test the power of combining the drugs olaparib and durvalumab in combating metastatic triple negative breast cancer.

And there’s more. Thanks to a grant from Gateway for Cancer Research, the next clinical trial will expand into a four-arm study, taking place at multiple sites (University of Washington, Vanderbilt University, and University of Minnesota), and testing four different drug regimens with a goal to develop a personalized targeted therapy for people with metastatic triple negative breast cancer.

Why are new kinds of treatments so important for cancer care? Why do we need to develop alternatives to chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy, though effective for some patients, is still non-specific and aims to kill rapidly dividing cells. This means it carries a significant risk of side effects, acute and chronic, which makes it hard to give for a prolonged period time. Additionally, tumors become resistant to chemotherapy, so we have to find better and more tumor-specific targets to get better and longer responses, with minimal damage to normal cells, and then less side effects.

What research options are open to you at the Knight Cancer Institute that would not be possible at another university?

The collaboration between the breast cancer team and the SMMART team (Serial Measurements of Molecular and Architectural Responses to Therapy) has allowed us to conduct complex innovative clinical trials. This has required investment from multiple groups at the Knight, such as radiology, without whom we would not be able to collect samples for analysis. It is a testament to everyone’s commitment to success that OHSU will be the central lab for the multi-arm, multi-site study, with all sites sending samples to us for analysis.

What’s next?  

We have started a new neoadjuvant (pre-operative) study looking at a novel combination therapy (abemaciclib and niraparib) in patients with early stage breast cancer. This project reflects our commitment to moving our research into early stage disease, where we believe there is the best chance to cure breast cancer. It also represents an important collaboration with Legacy Breast Surgical Oncology to expand this option to more breast cancer patients.