New Thyroid Cancer Treatment Emerges

Drug Could Stop Tumor In Its Tracks; First New Treatment In 30 Years

For the first time in 30 years, there is a new treatment for thyroid cancer. About 35,000 people face the battle this type of cancer every year, and one quarter of them don’t respond to traditional therapy. Now, there's a drug that's stopping tumors in their tracks.

Tim Eimer is a father of two. He's also an outdoor enthusiast, a science teacher and a cancer patient living on borrowed time.

"I started praying that I would have 15 more years," said Eimer. "Fifteen years would get me through their childhood."

A lump on Eimer's neck was diagnosed as thyroid cancer. When caught early, most patients are treated successful with surgery and radioactive iodine. But for one in four patients, it doesn't work. Many, like Eimer, are given about three years to live.

Dr. Marcia Brose, assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology -- medicine dealing with the ear, nose and throat -- at Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia is leading a study on a drug called Sorafenib. It's part of a class of drugs geared to stop the spread or actually shrink tumors. In early studies, it benefited 62 percent of the patients.

"This wasn't a subtle signal that this molecule was working in thyroid cancer," said Brose. "It was a home run."

After taking the drug for two months, Eimer's tumors shrank by one-third. He knows it may not save his life, but it may extend it by years. "This drug has given me an opportunity," Eimer said. "It's really been a blessing. It may enable me to meet that goal and raise my boys."

The drug Sorafenib has already received FDA approval for use in patients with an advanced type of kidney cancer and one form of liver cancer. Brose says patients may experience some uncomfortable side effects like skin blistering, nausea and weight loss, but for most, the effects subside after a few months.

BACKGROUND: Thyroid cancer forms within the thyroid gland and can be found in patients ranging from ages 20 and 80. The thyroid gland is responsible for making hormones that help control heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and weight. The thyroid gland is located at the base of your neck, just below the Adam's apple. There are four main types of thyroid cancer based on how the cancer cell looks under a microscope. The National Cancer Institute estimates that over 37,000 cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed in 2009 and 1,630 deaths occurred from the cancer that same year. The Mayo Clinic notes that thyroid cancer is not common in the United States, but it is the most common type of endocrine cancer.

As thyroid cancer grows, it may cause symptoms including pain in the neck or throat, difficulty swallowing, a lump felt through the skin and voice changes like hoarseness. Causes are not completely clear, but thyroid cancer occurs when cells in the thyroid change or mutate. This mutation allows cells to grow and multiply at a rapid rate. Once these cells multiply, the multiple cells lose their ability to die. These non-dying cells then can go throughout the body and invade nearby tissue, often causing tumors to grow.

NEW TREATMENT: Sorafenib is an oral drug that is geared to stop and shrink tumors. Currently, Sorafenib is FDA approved and being used to treat advanced renal cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that begins in the kidneys. Sorafenib comes as a tablet and is taken twice a day by mouth. Some of the side effects include: tiredness, weakness, rash, skin redness, hair loss, dry skin, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, constipation, hair loss, diarrhea, stomach pain, dry mouth, mouth sores, weight loss, joint pain, numbness and headache. (Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine/ National Institutes of Health)

Researchers at Penn Medicine have recently completed a phase II trial of Sorafenib and found patients who were resistant to radioactive iodine therapy responded well to the drug. Results show Sorafenib improves median overall survival by three-fold compared to the chemotherapy drug Doxorubicin.