Meet our doctors: Thomas Slavin on genetic testing

August 28, 2015 | by
Thomas Slavin, M.D.

Thomas Slavin, assistant clinical professor in the Division of Clinical Cancer Genetics at City of Hope, discusses genetic testing and why he chose genetics as a career.

People with a family history of cancer often want, or need, to know whether they have a gene mutation linked to that cancer. For that, they seek genetic testing, involving a blood sample that is analyzed for specific gene abnormalities.

Thomas Slavin, M.D., a geneticist and assistant clinical professor at City of Hope, typically works with patients – primarily breast, ovarian or colorectal cancer patients – who have a hereditary predisposition to cancer. Most are part of City of Hope’s large Hereditary Cancer Registry and are working with a genetic counselor. Slavin, the counselor and the patient use the patient’s history and genetic information to inform testing and make treatment plans.

Here, Slavin explains why he chose such a complex and rapidly involving field.

Why did you choose the field of genetic testing?

It has been an interest of mine since I was very young.  When I was in middle school, I wrote to the American Society of Human Genetics requesting information about careers in genetics because I’ve always found it intriguing that one little mutation in a single gene can be life-changing for a family. After pursuing residencies in both pediatrics and medical genetics and completing a board certification in molecular diagnosis, I became particularly interested in the rapid advances in genetics sequencing and the newfound ability to make detailed molecular diagnoses on individuals. » Continue Reading

Precision medicine: What it means now. What it means for the future

August 25, 2015 | by

It was 2009 when a City of Hope patient in her 40s learned that the cancer she had been fighting for several years had metastasized to her lungs. Her medical team ran genetic tests on the tumor, but none of the drug therapies available at the time targeted the known mutations in the tumor cells.

Precision medicine in cancer

Precision medicine is now a reality for some patients. City of Hope is working to make it a reality for many more.

Although at first the woman responded to chemotherapy, by 2013 toxicity had caused side effects so grave that the patient was faced with stopping her treatment. And then her doctors ran another test.

“We retested the biology of the tumor and this time, it turned out that we knew so much more about it,” said Karen Reckamp, M.D., M.S., medical director for Clinical Research Operations at City of Hope. Just four years after that initial diagnosis, doctors were able to identify a genetic mutation that previously had gone unrecognized. The best news of all – a drug that acted against that specific mutation was now available.

“She has been on the new treatment for two years now, with very good success,” said Reckamp, also co-director of the Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program at City of Hope. “That’s one of my favorite stories.” » Continue Reading

Type 1 diabetes patient is insulin-free for first time in 24 years

August 21, 2015 | by
islet cell transplantation successful

Type 1 diabetes patient Gina Marchini, shown here near her home in Palmer, Alaska, underwent an islet cell transplant at City of Hope in July. Two weeks later, she was hiking – without insulin.


Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 9 years old, Gina Marchini accepted the fact that she would need insulin the rest of her life. Every day, she injected herself with the lifesaving hormone. She also carefully controlled her diet and monitored the rise and fall of her blood glucose with military precision.

That was before her islet cell transplant.

“I thought diabetes was a life sentence. Now, I’m insulin-free,” said the 33-year-old kindergarten teacher from Palmer, Alaska.

Even now she finds it hard to believe. Only hours after the surgery that provided her with insulin-producing islet cells of her own, Marchini’s doctors told her that her glucose levels were at normal levels. Within a few days, she was able to forgo insulin altogether.

“I thought there was no way around it without my insulin shots, but now, after checking my blood sugar levels every two hours for days on end with results in the nondiabetic range, I’m starting to believe I’m free,” Marchini said.

The results of the recently opened trial have yet to be written or even completed. But, as one of the approximately 1.25 million Americans diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, Marchini highlights the improvements and goals in diabetes research – as well as the still almost inconceivable promise of a life free of needles and restrictions. » Continue Reading

Disease teams target pancreatic cancer, triple-negative breast cancer

August 20, 2015 | by
cancer disease teams

Curing cancer takes a team approach. Now, City of Hope has two new disease teams for some of the most challenging cancers: pancreatic cancer and triple-negative breast cancer.

The defeat of cancer will require a team effort. Nowhere is this more necessary (or apparent) than in efforts to combat two of the most deadly forms of the disease  – pancreatic cancer and triple-negative breast cancer.

It’s the approach City of Hope is taking with its newly launched multidisciplinary teams, bringing the power of collaboration to advance research into earlier diagnoses, better treatments and potential cures for patients with these and other cancers.

Both pancreatic cancer and triple-negative breast cancer are aggressive, difficult to diagnose and have limited treatment options. Pancreatic cancer represents just 3 percent of all cancer cases yet 7 percent of cancer deaths. Triple-negative breast cancer represents 10 to 20 percent of breast cancers and occurs typically in younger women and disproportionately in African-American and Hispanic women. In both diseases, survival rates at Stage 4 are dismal – only 12 months with pancreatic cancer; 18 to 24 months for triple-negative breast cancer.

The new specialized teams that City of Hope has created are offshoots of larger disease teams rolled out across the institution over the past year. Together and individually, they bring a holistic approach toward advancing knowledge and treatment of all the major tumors and blood cancers.

» Continue Reading

NCI grant aims to prevent heart failure in childhood cancer survivors

August 19, 2015 | by
heart failure

Rates of heart failure are drastically high among childhood cancer survivors — 15 times higher than among people the same age who were never treated for cancer.

It’s a reasonable question: Why is the National Cancer Institute funding a study on preventing heart failure?

The answer is reasonable as well: Rates of heart failure are drastically high among childhood cancer survivors — 15 times higher than among people the same age who were never treated for cancer. The biggest culprit appears to be a group of chemotherapy drugs called anthracyclines, which are used to treat up to 60 percent of childhood cancer patients.

Anthracyclines have been linked to cardiomyopathy, a deterioration in the heart muscle. And research by City of Hope assistant professor Saro Armenian, D.O., M.P.H., and others has found that as the cumulative dose goes up, so does the prevalence of heart failure.

Now, Armenian — with a $3.2 million grant from the NCI — is going to assess whether medical intervention might curb that risk.

“Anthracyclines cause heart problems no matter what the age of the patient, and there are already caps on how much you can give someone. But children, from what we can tell, are more susceptible. These drugs destroy the heart cells, and if you do that to a developing heart, the injury is going to be more significant,” Armenian said.

In addition to holding joint appointments in the departments of Pediatrics and Population Sciences, Armenian is also director of City of Hope’s Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program. » Continue Reading

Where Carly Rae Jepson’s “I Really Like You” meets science (w/VIDEO)

August 18, 2015 | by

Many teenagers take a break from academics during the summer, but not the eight high school students enrolled in the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Creativity Awards program at City of Hope. They took the opportunity to obtain as much hands-on research experience as possible, learning from City of Hope researchers and scientists along the way. And, while they were at it, they made a music video.

Through the CIRM Creativity Awards program, the students worked full-time as members of City of Hope biomedical research teams, studying stem cell science and developmental biology research. As part of their work, students shared their experience in the lab by creating videos and blogs, which were shared on The Stem Cellar, the official CIRM blog.

This year, the CIRM students created a music parody video to Carly Rae Jepson’s “I Really Like You,” now called “We’re Really Close to a Breakthrough.” The video, solely produced by the students, earned an honorable mention for best video in the program. » Continue Reading

Genetic testing: What can I know? What should I know?

August 14, 2015 | by

As genetic testing becomes more sophisticated, doctors and their patients are finding that such tests can lead to the discovery of previously unknown cancer risks. In his practice at City of Hope, Thomas Slavin, M.D., an assistant clinical professor in the Division of Clinical Cancer Genetics, sees the full spectrum of hereditary cancer disorders in adults and children. Here, he discusses the expanded genetic testing options for people at risk for hereditary breast, ovarian and other cancers.

cancer and genetic testing

Genetic testing can reveal much about one’s cancer risk, but expertise is required to chart a plan of action.

What are some of the latest advancements in genetic testing?

Breast and ovarian cancer patients and family members at risk for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome are now being offered testing for many more genes outside of the well-known genes BRCA1 and BRCA2. And while there doesn’t appear to be a “BRCA3,” many other genes have been linked to breast and ovarian cancer predisposition. The recent advances in high throughput, cost-effective, next-generation sequencing techniques and the decision by the Supreme Court that genes cannot be patented have combined to form an explosion in hereditary cancer genetics testing. » Continue Reading

Graduate school earns 10-year accreditation

August 11, 2015 | by

When it comes to science, the best graduate schools don’t just train scientists, they prepare their students for a lifetime of learning, accomplishment and positive impact on society. At City of Hope, the Irell & Manella Graduate School of Biological Sciences goes one step further – by preparing students to transform the future of health.

City of Hope graduate school

Students in the Irell & Manella Graduate School come from across the country and the world to prepare for high-achieving careers in the biological sciences.

That reputation for excellence in translational medicine is garnering accolades – and an impressive accreditation. The school recently received its first 10-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Part of the Accrediting Commission for Senior College and Universities, the association is the regional accrediting body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.

The school was commended for “its increasingly strong contribution to the field of translational research by preparing capable researchers to engage productively in finding cures for some of society’s more intractable health issues.”

Although the graduate school is young, having been founded in 1994, it offers a rigorous program of coursework and laboratory research culminating in a Ph.D. degree. The faculty of 75 scientists train a select number of students recruited from across the country and the world, preparing them for high-achieving careers at universities, research institutions, and pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies such as Genentech Inc., Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, and New England Biolabs Inc. » Continue Reading

Ovarian Cancer Survivors Course: Get answers to your questions

August 6, 2015 | by

Women with ovarian cancer have questions about the most promising treatment options, revolutionary research avenues, survivorship and, of course, the potential impact on their personal lives. Now, together in one place, are experts who can provide answers.

Ovarian cancer answers

Ovarian cancer experts will gather on Sept. 12 to provide answers and information about ovarian cancer.

On Saturday, Sept. 12, the 2015 Ovarian Cancer Survivors Course will offer leading-edge expertise from some of the most knowledgeable scientists and physicians in the field, not only from City of Hope but also University of California Los Angeles, University of Southern California and elsewhere. Sponsored by the Foundation for Women’s Cancer, and supported by City of Hope, the course will provide women with the opportunity to network, ask questions, interact with gynecologic oncologists and researchers, and share their experience with other women. Even better, family members, friends and caregivers are welcome as well.

The foundation offers the course across the country throughout the year, and the one at City of Hope promises to be especially illuminating.

Among the sessions:

  • Ovarian Cancer: State of the Art Treatment and Importance of Enrollment in Clinical Trials
  • New Immunotherapeutic Approaches to Ovarian Cancer Treatment
  • Treatment of Recurrent Ovarian Cancer
  • Effect of Nutrition and Physician Activity on Cancer Survivorship
  • Hereditary Component of Ovarian Cancer
  • Gender Matters: Cancer as a Catalyst for Couples Inspiring Their Relationship
  • And more …

» Continue Reading

City of Hope experience proves ‘enlightening’ for Caltech students

August 4, 2015 | by
Cal Tech students

From left: Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope Vice Provost and Associate Director David Horne, students Galen Gao, May Hui and Lauren Li, City of Hope Provost and Chief Scientific Officer Steven T. Rosen, students Peter Noh and Cynthia Sung, and Deputy Director of Basic Research Linda Malkas.

Internship programs are a rite of summer for many high-achieving students. For five Caltech pre-med students, each hoping to make a mark in medicine, that rite led them to the City of Hope campus in Duarte, California, for an exceptional learning experience.

The collaboration between the two high-profile research institutions marked the renewal of a successful venture that was in place between 2007 and 2009. And while that program was a shadowing experience, known as a preceptorship – in which students discreetly trail doctors through rounds – this version of the program offered a broader agenda.

The idea behind the latest program – as envisioned by Steven T. Rosen, M.D., provost and chief scientific officer at City of Hope – involved not only shadowing but a strong educational component, with each participating department setting a curriculum that included lectures, visits with physicians and other medical personnel, as well as engagement with patients.

“We are delighted to renew this wonderful connection with Caltech,” Rosen said, adding: » Continue Reading