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Soviet, UCLA Doctors Jointly Study New Drug to Fight Breast Cancer

October 08, 1989|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Physicians in Westwood and the Soviet Union have taken on a common enemy: breast cancer.

"It makes sense for us to work together," said John Glaspy, a member of the faculty of the UCLA School of Medicine who has joined a Soviet physician to assess the effects of an experimental drug on women being treated for advanced breast cancer.

As Glaspy explained, the study is part of the first cooperative venture involving cancer research institutions in the United States and the Soviet Union.

Glaspy and Soviet researcher Michail Lichinitser will evaluate how women who have had surgery for advanced breast cancer respond to the experimental drug Granulocyte Colony-Stimulating Factor (G-CSF).

Thirty women at the All Union Cancer Research Center in Moscow, the leading Soviet cancer center, will receive the drug while undergoing chemotherapy, as will 30 women at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Drug Is Cloned Hormone

G-CSF is a cloned hormone that prevents the low white blood cell count and vulnerability to infection typical of patients receiving chemotherapy, Glaspy said. Produced by Amgen in Thousand Oaks, the drug is being evaluated for approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration. It has been tested in the United States for about 2 1/2 years. The Moscow study will represent its first use in the Soviet Union.

Glaspy said he and his Soviet counterpart will look at how much chemotherapy can be increased with the protection of the experimental drug and whether this approach is superior to lower levels of chemotherapy. The study, which will begin shortly in both countries, should be completed in about a year.

The Moscow-UCLA study is one of four pioneering cross-cultural cancer studies being conducted under the auspices of the All Union Cancer Research Center and the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

According to Lichinitser, who met in September with Glaspy and other cancer researchers at UCLA, breast cancer is a major killer of Soviet women. "The seriousness of the problem is about the same as in the United States," Lichinitser said through a translator.

"Breast cancer is epidemic in the United States," Glaspy said. The leading cause of cancer deaths among women, it affects almost one in 10 American women and causes more than 80,000 deaths a year, he said. For reasons that are not fully understood, breast cancer is on the rise in both countries and is striking a growing number of younger women, the researchers said.

Mammogram Program

Lichinitser, an expert on chemotherapy at the Moscow cancer center, said the Soviet Union has a national breast-cancer prevention program.

Women are urged to examine their breasts and have regular breast X-rays or mammograms. They are also advised to breast-feed their babies as a possible preventive measure. The word is spread on radio and television, in schools and factories and in women's magazines, including the popular Woman Worker.

It is virtually mandatory that Soviet women past the age of 45 have a mammogram every two years, Lichinitser said. Mobile units bring the X-ray equipment to outlying communities. There is a high degree of compliance, he said.

Self-examination, which Soviet women are encouraged to do four times a year, is the least successful part of the program, according to Lichinitser. "They don't do it," he said.

Richard Steckel, who directs the UCLA cancer center, said less than 25% of American women have regular mammograms or otherwise comply with standard recommendations for early detection of the disease. Although American women are advised to examine their own breasts, many American physicians are unsure if self-examination provides a significant benefit beyond mammography. Glaspy advised women to have mammograms at recommended intervals. "And don't ignore a lump," he counseled.

Glaspy, who visited the Soviet Union for the first time this summer, said the care offered at its major cancer centers is different from but comparable to the care in American institutions. "Their best centers practice at a very high level," he said. Although Glaspy emphasized that he had not done a study, he said he suspects that care outside the major Soviet cities is not as good as the American standard.

Between the two countries, the primary difference in treatment is in the drugs used, Glaspy said. Soviet physicians use anti-cancer drugs developed in their own country and elsewhere in Europe, but they often have limited access to promising American-made drugs.

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