Can She Change the Way We Treat Cancer?
Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal
A cancer researcher turned cancer survivor is changing the way ovarian tumors are treated.At dawn on a perfect summer morning in 2006, Laura Shawver was lying on her surfboard, waiting for a wave off San Diego's Scripps Pier, when she noticed a sensation of pressure in her pelvis. Shawver had spent most of her career working for Sugen, a pharmaceutical company that developed drugs for stomach and kidney cancer. But the possibility that what she was feeling was a tumor never crossed her mind.
Two weeks later, Shawver found herself in her doctor's office staring at an ultrasound monitor. "I remember thinking they must have been using a magnification setting," she says. The mass on her left ovary was the size of a grapefruit.
As the cancer diagnosis sank in, Shawver launched into scientist mode. She figured her first step would be to get a molecular profile—or blueprint—of her tumor. "Blueprinting" was a new technique revolutionizing cancer treatment: It identified the exact genetic glitch causing a tumor to grow so that doctors could design a precisely targeted treatment.
To Shawver's shock, however, not a single commercial lab in the United States was profiling ovarian tumors. The big cancers—breast, lung, colon—were at the forefront of genetic testing, but no one was applying the tactic to smaller cancers.
Shawver knew her prognosis wasn't good. Three-quarters of ovarian cancer patients experience a recurrence within a couple of years, and more than 90 percent of them will die from it. About half a dozen drugs are regularly used to treat recurrent ovarian tumors and 16 more are considered potentially useful, but without a tumor's blueprint, doctors essentially "pick a drug out of a hat," Shawver says, making the decision based on factors such as whether a patient prefers oral or IV medication, and if she minds losing her hair. "As a scientist, that didn't make sense to me. I thought, We can do better."
After her surgery and chemo (she got the standard regimen for a first tumor), Shawver started the Clearity Foundation in 2007 to coordinate ovarian cancer blueprinting at no cost to the patient.
Clearity works with a handful of labs to run the broad array of tests needed to build each molecular profile. Insurance companies cover some of the cost (which can reach $10,000), and Clearity pays the rest with donated funds. Once the blueprint is complete, the foundation will help match the patient to an appropriate clinical trial or recommend a treatment tailored to her specific cellular malfunction.
Clearity has been tracking the progress of all the women it helps—200 to date—and offers its data to doctors and researchers all over the world so they can find out which drugs work best on which types of tumors.
Stephen Friend, MD, president of Sage Bionetworks, a nonprofit studying how genetic research can combat disease, says Clearity's data is invaluable to scientists searching for a cure. "Every disease needs a champion," Friend says. "For ovarian cancer, Laura is the one." Shawver is winning the battle for her own health, too. She has been cancer-free for four years.