Health Watch: Targeting ALK Positive Lung Cancer

NEW YORK CITY (KFSN) -- Many lung cancer patients who have never smoked and don't work around toxic chemicals or carcinogens have been found instead to have a defective gene that drives their cancer. Now, an FDA- approved therapy is targeting what doctors call ALK positive cancer, helping push patients toward remission.

Most mornings, you'll find Bruce Dunbar powering through a workout with the Westchester, New York, Master's swim club. Bruce was a high school All-American and captain of the Princeton swim team. Now at 52, swimming is good for his body, and his mind.

Dunbar told Ivanhoe, "The truth is, it's a chance to think about what the day has in store. What life has in store."

Two years ago, Dunbar's life was flipped upside down. What doctors first thought was asthma or pneumonia was finally diagnosed as stage four lung cancer. It had spread to his spine and his brain.

"As it turns out, I had 26 lesions in my brain," Dunbar said.

Dunbar never smoked. His doctors determined he had a gene mutation driving the cancer.

"Bruce wound up having something called an ALK rearrangement, which is a mutation, different parts of the chromosome fused together, and fortunately, that has amazing drugs now," said Brendon Stiles, MD, Thoracic Surgeon at Weill Cornell Medicine & NY-Presbyterian.

In fact, just one month before Dunbar was diagnosed, the FDA approved Alecensa and his oncologist prescribed it. Four pills twice a day.

Now more than 20 months later, Dunbar has just three tumors in his brain. The tumor in his lung is only one-tenth of what it used to be.

"In November of 2017 when I was diagnosed I wasn't sure I was going to live, let alone get back in a pool again," Dunbar said.

Back swimming and competing as long as he can.

Doctors say eventually the drug will stop working and the cancer will regrow. The hope is that the targeted therapy works long enough for researchers to refine the next generation of the drug, or add another treatment, like immunotherapy to keep Dunbar going. Bruce says he has had some minimal side effects from the drug including fatigue, weight gain, and a suppressed heart rate.
Copyright © 2019 KFSN-TV. All Rights Reserved.