U of A researchers hope to stop heart disease in cancer patients before it starts

(Edmonton) Shelley Vigor was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, just four days before Christmas.

She was devastated to hear that even if she survives the cancer, the treatment is hard on her heart and she could develop cardiovascular disease.

But Vigor, and other breast cancer patients, have hope, thanks to Ian Paterson, an assistant professor of cardiology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta and Edith Pituskin, a registered nurse and PhD candidate in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, who are working on a new clinical trial called MANTICORE. The purpose is to put a stop to cardiovascular disease in breast cancer patients before it starts, and Vigor is one of the participants.

“Our goal is to look at patients diagnosed with cancer and to detect heart disease and risk factors for heart disease sooner than they are currently being recognized, and treat them aggressively,” said Paterson. “We’re hoping we can prevent heart disease not only during cancer treatment itself, but also after the cancer treatment is done.”

Paterson and Pituskin decided to start with breast cancer patients because it is the leading cancer in women and the leading cause of cancer deaths in women. Treatments have improved drastically over the years, including one in particular called Herceptin.

"The drug has been shown to really improve survival rates of some types of breast cancer,” said Paterson, who added the patients they are working with who take Herceptin have an aggressive type of breast cancer. “Unfortunately it can also damage the heart in up to 20 per cent of women taking this drug.

“We’re trying to detect signs of injury much more quickly using special blood tests and special imaging tests like an eco-cardiogram and MRI.”

The pair will also try to detect if any of the women involved in the study have cardiac risk factors like high blood pressure and they’ll try to treat those very aggressively.

Vigor says its overwhelming thinking about cancer treatment and joining a clinical trial, but she knew she had to do it.

Cardio-oncology is an emerging field of medicine and Paterson and Pituskin are leading the way, says Paterson. “We’re one of the first and we could serve as a blueprint for other programs,” he said, adding that they want to get a number of sites nationally on board with the trials. “Then we’ll be able to track outcomes for these patients and develop a registry where we can track how people are doing and have these clinics make a difference.”

For patients like Vigor, they’re ecstatic this type of work is being done in their hometown.

“Without research and researchers like this team the prognosis that I would have now would be not as good as it is today,” said Vigor. “The opportunity to take part in something like this is very positive for me and I’m very glad to be able to do it.”

The researchers conducting the trial want to enrol 159 patients. So far 17 are involved in Edmonton and the study is adding a centre in Winnipeg and hopes Toronto will come on board soon. The study is being funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation and Canadian Institutes of Health Research.