By Michele Sequeira

Grounded in Science

Dr. Sarah Adams uses a $1.2 million grant for ovarian cancer research to better understand how her clinical trial’s drug combination works

Doctors face a difficult decision when they must choose a drug combination that will benefit the person sitting before them in an exam room. Statistics can't show how any one person will respond to a treatment. And in treating ovarian cancer, Sarah Adams, MD, knows that such treatment decisions can have high stakes; she routinely makes these decisions.

A physician-scientist at The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center, Adams wants to find better ways to treat ovarian cancer. Her research has uncovered a drug combination, now in clinical trials, that's showing promise. Using a five-year $1.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, she hopes to find better ways to predict which women will benefit from this drug combination.

"We're trying to decide who is a good candidate for the immune therapies," Adams says. "Being able to identify factors that predict success for a particular patient would be extremely helpful."

The drug combination that Adams discovered pairs a PARP inhibitor with an immune antibody. Both drugs have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The PARP inhibitor kills ovarian tumor cells, while the immune antibody spurs healthy immune cells to clear the dead tumor cells.

Adams' studies showed that this drug combination was highly effective in cancer models, and those results enabled her to launch the clinical trial for people. The clinical trial opened at the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center and is currently open in Ohio, Virginia and Florida through the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network. "This clinical trial wouldn't have been possible," Adams says, "without the [financial] support from the Oxnard Foundation and the Surface family."

Based on early results from the clinical trial at UNM, the National Cancer Institute is testing this combination in a larger group of women with recurrent ovarian cancer. In October 2019, the NCI opened this second follow-up clinical trial across the country through the NRG Clinical Research Consortium and Adams is serving as the national study chair.

Adams' UNM clinical trial was also one of the first to be selected for additional scientific study. Her grant from the NCI was awarded through the Cancer Immune Monitoring and Analysis Centers program, one of the NCI's Cancer Moonshot Initiatives. She will work with MD Anderson Cancer Center to better understand how the drugs in her combination work together.

Adams suspects that the PARP inhibitor may behave differently when used with the immune antibody and hopes to discover the chemical reactions in ovarian tumor cells that are affected by the drugs. "If we can understand how to leverage these alternate mechanisms of action," she says, "we can get more out of the drugs we already have."

Ultimately, she hopes to find a predictive biomarker - a pattern of proteins that would tell a doctor whether the tumor would respond more strongly to the drug combination. "This grant will drive the science in parallel with the clinical trial," Adams says. "And it's important to me to make sure that we're making clinical decisions based on evidence, that we're grounded in science."


Sarah Adams, MD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Division of Gynecologic Oncology, at the UNM School of Medicine, and holds The Victor and Ruby Hansen Surface Endowed Professorship in Ovarian Cancer Research.

The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health supported the research reported in this publication under Award Number 1R37CA229221-01A1, Principal Investigator: Sarah Foster Adams, MD. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in a 500-mile radius.

Its more than 120 board-certified oncology specialty physicians include cancer surgeons in every specialty (abdominal, thoracic, bone and soft tissue, neurosurgery, genitourinary, gynecology, and head and neck cancers), adult and pediatric hematologists/medical oncologists, gynecologic oncologists, and radiation oncologists. They, along with more than 600 other cancer healthcare professionals (nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, navigators, psychologists and social workers), provide treatment to 65% of New Mexico's cancer patients from all across the state and partner with community health systems statewide to provide cancer care closer to home. They treated approximately 14,000 patients in about 100,000 ambulatory clinic visits in addition to in-patient hospitalizations at UNM Hospital.

A total of nearly 400 patients participated in cancer clinical trials testing new cancer treatments that include tests of novel cancer prevention strategies and cancer genome sequencing.

The more than 100 cancer research scientists affiliated with the UNMCCC were awarded $35.7 million in federal and private grants and contracts for cancer research projects. Since 2015, they have published nearly 1000 manuscripts, and promoting economic development, they filed 136 new patents and launched 10 new biotechnology start-up companies.

Finally, the physicians, scientists and staff have provided education and training experiences to more than 500 high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellowship students in cancer research and cancer health care delivery.

Categories: Comprehensive Cancer Center