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New genetic testing gives researchers new tool to fight cancer

A doctor works in the Institute for Translational Oncology Research at Greenville Hospital System. (File/FOX Carolina) A doctor works in the Institute for Translational Oncology Research at Greenville Hospital System. (File/FOX Carolina)
Chris Draft (right) visits ITOR. (File/FOX Carolina) Chris Draft (right) visits ITOR. (File/FOX Carolina)

In the game of football, players face tough opponents, and former NFL linebacker Chris Draft knows what it means to play hard. That's why his new game plan is to beat lung cancer.

"What we've found consistently is there is hope for lung cancer," Draft said.

Draft formed Team Draft with his wife, Keasha Rutledge Draft, at their wedding. She grew up in Williamston, was athletic, healthy and a non-smoker. But, despite all of that, she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

"She came to me and she said 'You know what, how about we don't get presents? How about we just ask people to support this fight against lung cancer?' Now it's morphed into this national campaign to change the face of lung cancer," Draft said.

A month after their wedding, she died, and since then, Draft's new playbook is filled with cancer survivors.

He makes moves from city to city, touring cancer centers and treatment facilities. He said the mission is to pass on hope to survivors based on what he's learned in honor of his late wife.

"So hold on, keep fighting, keep living, and something's coming. She wanted to be an inspiration during her fight," Draft said.

He recently toured ITOR, which is the Institute for Translational Oncology Research with the Greenville Hospital System. ITOR provides advanced cancer treatment through on-site research.

"We're seeing relatively young patients, perhaps even in their 40's, present with cough, chest pain, shortness of breath and have lung cancer that we cannot link to a personal history of smoking," Dr. William Gluck said.

Gluck is an oncologist with the Greenville Hospital System, where new genetic testing is being done in hopes of detecting lung cancer early.

"We're saying that this isn't just that you have lung cancer, but this is your specific DNA pattern that allows us then to introduce a very directive, personalized therapy of cancer," Gluck said.

The test looks at the activity of genes in cancer cells to determine which patients would benefit from certain aggressive treatments.

"That's the clue for us to say these are the normal gene patterns. These are the abnormal ones. Not that they were born with them, but they were acquired," Gluck said.

In the ITOUR lab, clinical trials are also taking place along with new testing for cancer mutations on machines called gene sequencers. Gluck said patients are also seeing progress with less aggressive treatment.

"Many of those patients actually benefit from a pill as opposed to the use of general chemotherapy," Gluck said.

One of those pills is criztinib, the drug that blocks a gene which causes cancer growth.

"We've had patients go from practically disabled to pretty functional in two weeks," Gluck said.

However, for patients who still need surgery, some of them are introduced to a Da Vinci robot. Its arms, cameras and precision are operated by Dr. William Bolton and Dr. Jim Stephenson. They are both thoracic surgeons.

"We think it's very precise. We're amazed at what the robot lets us do with the instruments," Stephenson said. "You take four to five trocars, (which) are inserted into the chest cavity, one with a camera, and the remaining with instruments which the surgeon controls."

So, while doctors control robots in one part of the room, patients are getting treatment just feet away.

"What's unique about the robotic system is it provides three-dimensional optics and magnification in the ability to operate very small incisions without dividing or cutting ribs," Stephenson said.

Stephenson said that could mean less pain and quicker recovery time for patients. It's a procedure bringing hope to cancer patients throughout the Upstate and the country.

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