Doctors in the Westchester Medical Center Health Network are using next-generation therapies to help patients beat cancer.
By Susie Aybar
Immunotherapy is at the forefront of the advanced care offered to cancer patients at Westchester Medical Center and Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, both members of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth). Two doctors and researchers are currently leading the way forward at WMCHealth’s Valhalla campus: Mitchell Cairo, MD, Chief of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology and Stem Cell Transplantation at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, and John T. Fallon, MD, PhD, a pathologist and the Director of Laboratories at Westchester Medical Center.
In his lab, Dr. Cairo and his team are cur- rently engaged in numerous research efforts to combat cancer via cutting-edge immu- nological approaches. The lab is working at identifying genetic abnormalities in leuke- mia cases, investigating antibodies and cell engagers in malignancies and developing “cellular” strategies — such as the use of stem cells to help treat cancers, as well as a variety of genetic diseases. For Dr. Cairo and his team, the objective is twofold.
“With all my patients, my goal is to de- liver the highest-quality care with the least amount of toxicity and the highest chance of survival,” states Dr. Cairo. “At the same time, I want to be involved in developing the next generation of therapies.”
Dr. Cairo says that these next generation therapies exemplify “personalized medicine,” where the specific problem is targeted. Often, these treatments can be more effective because they’re highly focused compared with more general therapies, which can carry “off-target” side effects.
Dr. Fallon is also dedicated to fighting cancer through immunotherapy — and recently made news by implementing soft- ware from healthcare technology company Royal Philips to help tailor personalized cancer treatments for patients. Fallon uses genomic testing techniques to investigate potential DNA mutations within a patient, to better target the treatments.
The personalized therapies, according to Dr. Fallon, target the cancers and nothing else; as a result, they carry fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. By targeting the therapy for the tumor cells specifically, none of the other cells within a patient’s body are affected — eliminating the negative side effects, such as hair loss and gastrointestinal issues.
Fallon also explained the benefits of immunotherapy drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors,” which block tumor pathways, allowing the person’s own immune cells to attack the tumor. Using these medications, “we’ve had good results with melanomas and lung cancers, and some colon cancers,” he says.
Cancer genomics is also playing a role in the new therapies. Dr. Fallon says that Westchester Medical Center is in the final stages of getting validation from New York State for a diagnostic test that will show some of the specific mutations their patients’ tumors have, in order to better target them.
“Some of these drugs are pretty miraculous — they cure the patients. Regular chemotherapy and radiation would give the patients three to four extra months, but now, with these targeted therapies, they can put the patient right into remission for years,” he states.