'Autopsy trial' allows researchers to explore how cancer patients' disease overcomes treatment

Scientists from Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus are leading a clinical study to better understand how certain types of cancer overpower treatment by analyzing biological samples collected from cancer patients within hours after their death. 

Before their death, patients who are part of the Rapid Cancer Research Autopsy Trial consent to donate biological samples for research. Researchers then perform an autopsy shortly after a patient dies before tissues start to degrade, and preserve them to maintain the tissue characteristics. The approach allows for research that is otherwise not possible, according to a Sept. 29 news release. 

"As patients undergo cancer treatment and, in some instances, succumb to their disease, there's limited opportunity to understand their cancer and what made it so lethal and what took their lives," said Sameek Roychowdhury, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist who is leading the trial.

"The rapid autopsy program allows us to sample every site of cancer in the body. This can help us understand how the cancer cells overcame different treatments and then go back to the drawing board to develop better therapies targeted to different genes and types of cancer." 

The rapid research team from OSUCC's Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute has performed 55 autopsies since the trial's launch in 2016. Data from the autopsies supported research that found infigratinib — a newly approved therapy — has a meaningful effect on tumor response among patients with locally advanced or metastatic cholangiocarcinoma and led to FDA-approval of the therapy for certain cancers in May. The drug targets FGFR2 gene mutations known as fusions. 

"This represents a strong potential new therapy option for diseases that have limited treatment options," Dr. Roychowdhury said. "We are so humbled by our patients' selflessness by participating in research that will help others. It is a legacy of hope and exciting to see both precision cancer medicine and the research autopsy trial translating into discoveries at the patient's bedside."

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