Larry LaRue: Local doctors look to tackle cancer at the genetic level

Staff WriterNovember 9, 2013 

Dr. Frank Senecal has spent much of his life fighting cancer in others and learned a bittersweet truth: Today he can save patients with some forms of the disease, while others remain incurable.

Senecal has practiced in Tacoma since 1985, a doctor of hematology and oncology, and at age 62 he has taken on his greatest challenge. Along with partners in Puyallup and at the University of Washington, he will be on the front lines of an innovative cancer study.

“We’ve learned that cancer is genes gone wild, and that if we can identify the mutation, we can target it,” he said. “With triple-negative breast cancer, we don’t have a target yet.”

Senecal and his partners formed a Tacoma nonprofit, South Sound CARE Foundation, in 2008. Today, they’re going after that particular type of breast cancer on a genetic level, in a way that hasn’t been tried.

Ten women, all volunteers, each with stage 4 of the cancer, will take part in the study. One patient from Puyallup and another from Spanaway have already been selected. Eight others will come aboard as funds allow.

What makes this study different?

“We go in knowing there’s no curative chemotherapy drug,” Senecal said. “The first thing we’ll do is biopsy multiple sites — something that hasn’t been done before. We might biopsy the breast, the liver, the lymph nodes.

“… We’ll submit those biopsies, frozen in liquid hydrogen, for DNA analysis. Then we’ll study the DNA analysis, uncover genetic alterations. We’re looking for an Achilles’ heel for cancer. If we find it, we can try to block its growth.”

Along with his partners, UW Professor of Medicine C. Anthony Blau and his wife, Puyallup oncologist Sibel Blau, there will be more than 70 researchers involved.

“DNA taken from the skin is different than DNA taken from the liver with cancer,” Senecal said. “We’ll submit the analysis, looking for mutations. We’ll sequence the genes, looking for any alternates to the norm.”

And if they find them?

“Say we find a mutation in PI3, a gene seen in some breast cancers. There are inhibitors to that, but they are not FDA-approved. With this trial, we’d contact the FDA for permission to use the experimental drug,” Senecal said.

There is precedent.

“CML leukemia is the poster child of genetics. Fifteen years ago, without a bone marrow transplant, patients died. Then we found the cause: When two certain genes transposed, an abnormal protein was created, and we couldn’t stop its spread,” Senecal said. “The University of Oregon developed a magic bullet, a drug that inhibited that protein, stopped its growth.”

The cost of this cancer study is $1.25 million — $125,000 for each of the 10 women. Some funding is coming from UW and some from grants that will kick in only when funding reaches a certain level.

Senecal is fundraising, in need of another $700,000. He’s courting major contributors from Pierce County but will happily accept any donation on the foundation’s website.

Women in stage 4 have an expected lifespan of eight to 12 months. That’s among the reasons there are so many researchers involved — the faster they can break down the genetics, the sooner experimental drugs can be employed.

Will it be fast enough to save the 10 women?

“The truth is — and they know this — they may not benefit from the trial,” Senecal said. “We may try genetic mutations A, B and C and find out it’s mutation D.

“These brave 10 women will provide so much information ….”

Senecal stops there.

“Patients are amazing,” Senecal said. “I do everything I can, and I think they know that. But I’ve given patients the bad news and had them hug me. Isn’t that amazing?

“If we could find the cure for this disease, that would be the highlight of my career.”

To learn more

Go to southsoundcare

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