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Saving Lives with Clinical Trials

Author: Don Butler
July 2019

Seventeen years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer at age 66. The prognosis wasn’t good; we quickly came to learn that the recommended standard of care, which at the time was a combination of surgery and traditional chemotherapy, had a five year survival rate of  less than 17%. This was not acceptable to any of us, but especially not to my mother, who never accepts being told she can’t do something. Getting her “affairs in order” would not be the focus of her action.

Don Butler with his mother today, seventeen years after her Stage IV ovarian cancer diagnosis

We started our research by talking to doctors and friends, and doing our own reading about what was possible. During this time we felt very alone on where to turn for help. We knew very little about clinical trials, and like so many, we incorrectly thought of them as a path of last resort. Soon after my mother’s diagnosis, a family friend introduced us to an oncologist at Johns Hopkins Research Institute. His mentor was just starting a Phase II clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) for the specific type of ovarian cancer my mom had. This therapy was designed to kill the cancer cells that may have spread throughout the patient’s abdomen, and was to be used in conjunction with conventional chemotherapy and surgery. 

When we first learned of the trial, my mother immediately embraced the approach because the alternative did not offer an acceptable outcome. The trial gave us reason for hope. This investigational treatment, along with superior medical care from the trial team, enabled my mother to defy the odds and brought her into permanent remission. Thanks to this trial, it was found that HIPEC in addition to chemotherapy and surgery resulted in longer recurrence-free survival and overall survival than surgery alone. This therapy is now a part of the standard of care for select ovarian cancer patients.  

In the end, it took a combination of luck and my mother’s fearless drive for us to find the clinical trial that saved her life. Today, my mother is a healthy 83-year-old woman who enjoys living at the beach and traveling with my father to visit her kids and grandkids.

This experience refocused my career to work in the clinical trials space. Clinical trials are not the path of last resort– they are where many of the most innovative therapies are found. Unfortunately, too many patients today are unaware or unable to find clinical trials for their specific conditions. These times are changing. I’m excited to be part of Verana Health’s mission where we can leverage the infinite insights of big healthcare data and new innovative technologies to help connect patients with clinical trials that can improve or save their lives. I know at Verana I can help make stories like my mother’s a reality for other patients looking for hope.

About the Author

Don Butler is Vice President of Life Science, Commercial at Verana Health, where he leads commercial strategy and sales for our clinical trials business.