When Karen Weatherman thought she was out of options in her fight against advanced pancreatic cancer, a treatment newly available at UF Health came to her rescue.
Weatherman was diagnosed with neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer in April 2018, and underwent surgery to remove part of her pancreas and her spleen that month. In November of that year, a second surgery was done to remove metastatic tumors that had spread to the right lobe of her liver. In 2021, surveillance imaging identified new tumors on the left side of her liver.
“What’s next?” Weatherman asked her doctor in DeLand. Her doctor’s response: UF Health.
On Oct. 6, Weatherman began getting treatment with a novel radiopharmaceutical agent, Lutathera, under the care of Robert Zlotecki, MD, PhD, a UF Health radiation oncologist.
Lutathera is used to treat certain neuroendocrine cancers of the pancreas or gastrointestinal tract. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in January 2018, the drug is administered as an IV infusion once every two months in a series of four treatments. Lutathera is designed to slow or potentially stop the growth of neuroendocrine cancers as well as help manage the many symptoms they cause.
Lutathera specifically targets neuroendocrine cancers of the pancreas and other parts of the human gut, which is the type of cancer that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had before he passed away.
As the first radiopharmaceutical agent approved to treat these cancers, it’s an alternative for patients with advanced neuroendocrine cancers that are inoperable or not responding to standard drug treatments.
As a radioactive targeted therapy, it uses a highly targeted carrier protein to deliver and “bind” the radiation to the tumor cells, damaging and killing the cancer while avoiding healthy cells. Because Lutathera is a radioactive agent, it requires a very tight schedule and safety protocols. There is less than a 24-hour window for it to be administered with optimal effectiveness and safety.
It is a leading example of targeted cancer therapy, according to Zlotecki. For cancers in which there are specific “binding” sites, or targets, on the cancer cells, this represents a comprehensive and safe mechanism for delivery of a systemic “total body” cancer therapy. That makes it effective against prostate, breast, colon and pancreatic cancer as well as melanoma.
“The objective of the drug is to treat the metastatic tumors in the patient’s liver or anywhere in the body. It greatly relieves the stress that these patients have from this type of hormonally active tumor, which can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea that is sometimes severely disabling to these patients. It can also be so severe as to cause a complex known as neuroendocrine crisis,” Zlotecki said.
Before her Lutathera treatment, Weatherman’s life was greatly impacted by the side effects of her cancer. She always had to be near a bathroom and never had an appetite past 6 p.m. After her last treatment on March 26, Weatherman can confidently say her quality of life is much improved.
“My body is so much better, and it’s improved my appetite,” Weatherman said. “I know this is not a cure, but it is supposed to help keep the tumors from growing as fast.”
Zlotecki agrees that incremental improvement was noticeable during Weatherman’s treatment.
“Life normalized for her,” he said. “It’s extremely gratifying to see people do that well on a therapy that does not promise cure, but really, really did positively impact quality of life across the board.”
When originally meeting with her UF Health medical team to go over the treatment plan and protocols, Weatherman felt completely at ease.
“I felt like I was in good hands. I just went into it with what I call eyes wide open — a comfortable, safe feeling,” Weatherman said. “I just truly feel blessed that I was able to go through this treatment. Knowing these tumors are rare, people need to know that there is something out there for them.”