Clinical Trial Changes How Lung Cancer is Treated

Diagnosed with tumors in her brain and lungs, Donna Blair Kortsch benefited from a treatment that stemmed from a clinical trial.Donna Blair Kortsch is probably best known to her Cottage Grove, Wis., neighbors as the helpful lady at the local hardware store.


She not only talks the talk, she's knows her way around plumbing repairs like a pro. And she takes that can-do attitude with her when she travels to the UW Carbone Cancer Center in Madison to take part in a clinical trial of an immunotherapy drug.


"You don't know what can happen unless you try," she says. "Cancer is not going to get solved on its own, by just sitting there and thinking about it."


Kortsch and her husband Lewis are busy parents, with three of their own children, plus three grandchildren, living at home.


In fact, it was one of her grandsons, Ashton, who noticed that something was wrong as she drove him to school in April 2015.


"Grandma, drive on your side of the road!"

"I am!"


But then Kortsch noticed that the cars on one side looked like they were parked on the sidewalk. Something was off in her vision, but she attributed it to stress, and made an appointment with an ophthalmologist. The doctor ordered a scan.


"A few days later, I was at work and had a really bad headache," she remembers. "My left eye was okay, but my right eye was moving around on its own."


The store's owners, Sharon and Denny Lochner, could tell that something was wrong with Kortsch, something much worse than a migraine.


They had her call her physician, who said she should go immediately to the University Hospital Emergency Department. There a scan showed a tumor in her brain. Sharon Lochner stayed with her as she was prepped for surgery, while her husband Lewis Kortsch went home to tell the children the bad news.


After that, she doesn't remember much. She went into surgery with neurosurgeon Dr. Nathan Brooks, and woke up much later in the University Hospital Neuro ICU. She learned that the brain tumor was, in fact, metastasized lung cancer. She had stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), with tumors in her lung that could not be removed by surgery.


After she healed from surgery and had a course of radiation to shrink her tumors, her medical oncologists Drs. Ticiana Leal and Anwaar Saeed asked if she wanted to take part in a clinical trial.


Every three weeks, she gets an infusion of pembrolizumab, an immunotherapy drug already approved for metastatic melanoma. She started the treatments in July 2015.


"I have a scan every nine weeks, and they started seeing the tumors slowly shrinking," Kortsch says. "The spots in my lung are gone, and the tumor in my head has not come back."


The treatment did affect her thyroid, which means she now needs to be on thyroid hormone, but other than that, the side effects have been minimal. 


"She has done very well and tolerated treatment well," Leal says. "Imaging has demonstrated complete response with no evidence of cancer, which is excellent news."


Leal notes that the trial showed that patients who got the immunotherapy drug had improved survival rates over those who had standard chemotherapy for metastatic NSCLC. In late October, the Food and Drug Administration decided there was enough evidence to approve pembrolizumab as a first-line treatment for non-small cell lung cancer.


So the trial not only helped Kortsch, by participating in the trial, she also helped bring about better care for future lung cancer patients.


"Thanks to Donna and others who participated, this study changed how we treat lung cancer," Leal says.