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Geraldine Ferraro's Doctors Hold Press Conference

Aired June 19, 2001 - 11:36   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We're still keeping our eye on that hospital room where we expect at St. Vincent's Comprehensive Cancer Center, the doctors have been treating Geraldine Ferraro -- they have just now entered the room, and we will go now to that press conference and get their words on the treatment of Geraldine Ferraro and her condition.


KATHY GIUSTI, PRES., MULTIPLE MYELOMA RESEARCH FOUNDATION: and I am a multiple myeloma patient. I'm also the president of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and with me here today is Dr. Ken Anderson, who is professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and also at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He is also one of the physicians overseeing Geraldine Ferraro's care. And I would also like to introduce Dr. Sunday Jagannath, who runs the myeloma center here at St. Vincent's hospital.

I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma about five years ago and at that time, there was literally no research going on in the disease and the treatment options were very scarce. I was 37 at time. I had a one-year-old girl and I was working in the pharmaceutical industry as the executive director at Searle.

So, as a patient, one of my first instincts was to look at the all pipelines of the pharmaceutical companies and see what they had for multiple myeloma. And unfortunately, what I realized along the way is that myeloma, since it only affects about 14,000 new cases each year, was not a top priority for the pharmaceutical industry and it also was not a top priority for the National Cancer Institute.

As a result of that, in 1998, I founded the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation with my twin sister, Karen Andrews, and our goal in starting that organization, the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, was to serve as a venture capital company. Basically, what we would do is to look at early science, look at new opportunities in multiple myeloma and make sure we funded them. Once those new ideas were validated, then we could turn them over to the pharmaceutical industry or the National Cancer Institute to keep moving them moving forward.

So, we still a relatively young organization, having been founded in 1998, but we have accomplished a tremendous amount. We have raised $10 million so far for multiple myeloma. We have distributed about $8 million specifically to myeloma research grants, with the remaining funds actually going to education, and truly, what we have done is supported the laboratories like Dr. Anderson's, Dr. Jagannath to make sure that scientists have the funding and the tools they need to find new compounds for myeloma.

As a result, we are starting to see some new treatment options, one of which you've heard about, obviously, is thalidomide with Geraldine Ferraro. But, as you'll hear from Dr. Anderson, there are other new compounds in the pipeline as well.

Speaking as both a patient and as the president of the foundation, I have to say that one of the greatest concerns is the fact that it takes a long time to actually get some of these compounds that are in the clinic right now to the market so that people like Geraldine Ferraro can benefit. Right now, it's about seven to eight years.

So, our goal is to testify in front of the Senate on Thursday. Geraldine Ferraro will be testifying, I will be testifying, and Dr. Anderson will be testifying and our focus there is to help Congress understand the issues that surround multiple myeloma and blood cancers, and to help understand that they need to fund blood cancers, to make sure that it doesn't take seven to eight years to get these new compounds to market.

So, that's one thing that you need to be aware of is that we will be testifying on Thursday in front of the Senate. At this point, what I would like to do is turn it over to Dr. Anderson, who can give you a little bit of insight in terms of the new treatment options available in myeloma. Thank you.

DR. KEN ANDERSON, FERRARO'S PHYSICIAN: Thank you very much, Kathy. It's really an honor to be here and privilege for me to be part of the team taking care of Geraldine Ferraro. You should know that she's approaching this challenge, the challenge of her life, just as she's approached on other challenges and I am sure she will be a winner with her courage and tremendous energy to make things better not only for herself, but for all other patients with myeloma.

Myeloma is a bone marrow cancer in which excess cells called plasma cells accumulate in the bone marrow. This results in low normal blood count, fatigue, increased risks of infection and bleeding. Unfortunately, patients with myeloma get thinning of their bones and fractures of the bones which severely limits their quality of life.

Although, we can treat myeloma with conventional treatment and even high-dosed therapy and transplant, we can't cure this disease today, I am very sad to say. The overall survival is about three to four years, and when one uses high-dosed therapy, we can extend that modestly to about four to five years.

So, even though it's not curable, we can improve and extend the patient's lives and improve their quality of life. Geraldine, as she has shared with all of us, is on an old drug, thalidomide, which has recently been discovered or rediscovered to have wonderful anti-tumor properties. It has the ability not only to kill the tumor cell directly, but also to act in the neighborhood or in the bone marrow to make it impossible for the myeloma cell to grow and survive there.

Exciting that this drug actually works when high-dose or low-dose conventional therapy really doesn't. In Geraldine's case, she was diagnosed approximately 2 1/2 years ago. For a while, she didn't need any therapy, and then we treated her briefly with high-dose dexamethasone or what you might know as steroids, and then she was put on very low doses of this drug thalidomide, with such an evil past, but with such a bright and promising future.

I am thrilled to tell you, as she shared this morning, that she has little, if any myeloma now. She's living a normal life, and it hasn't slowed her down one bit.

There's much reason for optimism in myeloma today. As Kathy shared, there are many new drugs, the new derivatives called immunomodulatory drugs, more potent and safer thalidomide drugs. There are also other drugs called proteasome inhibitors. Both of these are going to be more potent at killing myeloma cells as well as acting in the neighborhood and so we fully expect that they will make a major advance in the treatment of this disease.

The optimism, however, is tempered because it takes eight to 10 years to get these new drugs from the bench or laboratory to the clinic for evaluation and protocols and so we can get them to the patients who so desperately need them. As Kathy Giusti has shared with you, she and Geraldine Ferraro and I will be going to Congress on Thursday in order to make the case that there's much room for optimism in this disease and in other blood cancers, but then in order to make that very important leap from the bench to the bedside and get treatments for patients with myeloma who so desperately need them, we are going to need increased awareness and increased support and funding from Congress in order for this to happen.

That's why I'm so thrilled to call Geraldine not only my patient and friend, but someone who has been able and willing to go public in order to increase awareness, make the world a better place, not only for herself but for all myeloma patients worldwide. Thank you very much.

DR. SUNDAR JAGANNATH, ST. VINCENT'S CANCER CENTER: On behalf of St. Vincent's Comprehensive Cancer Center, St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center and New York Medical Center, I am happy to have this news conference over here, and I would like to reiterate what was said here once more.

We see that Geraldine Ferraro and Kathy Giusti, both of them have multiple myeloma, both of them have used their energy in trying to bring attention to this particular disease, trying to make the disease much more aware among the public and also raise funds and take -- and bring it to the attention of Congress so that more research funds will be made. And this is very timely because there are, as you heard Dr. Anderson told you before, there are a number and then drugs that are effective that are going through clinical trials, phase one, phase two. So that's what Kathy alluded to, that there are drugs in the clinic which needs to come to market. What is actually meant is that the drugs are in clinical trial, phase one, phase two drugs, and they are not, you know, widely available to all of the patients, and we want to have enough funding so that these drugs will be studied much more quickly and will become readily available for patients across the country and world over so they could benefit.

And the whole idea is to bring a cancer, which up until now, even though it was a blood-related cancer, where we have made tremendous progress in Hodgkin's disease and in childhood leukemia where cancer is a curable cancer, but as multiple myeloma, even though it's also a blood-related cancer, is not curable and all of the advances we want to make rapid strides quickly so that it will also become a curable cancer in the near future.

GIUSTI: OK, at this point, we would like to open it up to questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When you're going to ask questions, please give your name and media organization that you're with.

QUESTION: Question for Dr. Anderson. My name is Rick Colbin (ph), I'm with Fox News. Can you explain to us? You said that Ms. Ferraro has little myeloma in her body right now. Can you tell us what that means and how that might affect her prognosis and why she has such little of the disease in her right now?

ANDERSON: Yes, Geraldine has the diagnosis multiple myeloma, which, as I mentioned is excess plasma cells in the bone marrow in association with a protein that accumulates in the blood or urine made by those plasma cells. Fortunately for her, in response to the dexamethasone or steroids and then with a further response because of thalidomide, she has little if any detective myeloma at the present time.

What this means prognostically is that surely she is going to do well for many months to years. Although I wish most sincerely I could say that she would be cured, I really can't say that yet here today, but I hope that I've offered for you some optimism in terms of novel drugs.

As she shared with you this morning, only six months or a little bit longer than that ago, thalidomide would not have been available for her. And look at what a wonderful development in response she's had to that drug. There are new thalidomides, there are even more promising drugs such as proteasome inhibitors in the clinic that are showing great promise and I think that her prognosis is really quite good.

QUESTION: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Does this mean that she in remission? Is that what you are saying? And also, is this the same illness that Jackie Kennedy Onassis had?

ANDERSON: I think that it would be fair to say that her disease is in a remission at the present time. In -- in -- reflecting the fact that she had a wonderful response to standard steroid therapy as well as novel thalidomide therapy. It is a relative of the disease that Jackie Onassis had. She had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is also a B-cell tumor, but slightly different than multiple myeloma.

QUESTION: Emily (UNINTELLIGIBLE), "The Daily News." Is Ms. Ferraro part of any of these clinical trials that are ongoing?

ANDERSON: At the present time, she -- Geraldine Ferraro is not on a clinical trial. She is just being treated with very low doses of maintenance thalidomide therapy. However, should her myeloma return, it is our job and role in life to be there with novel drugs so that she can participate in protocol treatments.

Those are already available today in terms of new thalidomide drugs and proteasome inhibitors and others that work when thalidomide doesn't. Part of the reason for the optimism for Geraldine Ferraro, for Kathy Giusti and all patients with myeloma is that these new drugs will be there if and when she needs this.

HARRIS: We've been listening to Dr. Ken Anderson there. He is a part of the team that has been treating Geraldine Ferraro for her multiple myeloma. We've learned about her condition. The doctor says that he is confident in saying that she is in remission. He says that there is little if any of the myeloma now in her bone marrow, and it has not slowed her down.

He said that as far as her life expectancy goes, he says it could be months to years because she has responded so well to steroidal treatment along with the use of thalidomide, a drug that was associated with some horrible birth defects years ago in the '60s. This drug apparently has had an incredible affect on suppressing this myeloma that has been plaguing her bone marrow. This is a drug that was available only within the last six months so, and it has now put her in remission.

We understand also that they say that it takes some eight to 10 years for many of the drugs that may be available for treatment of this disease to make it from the bench to the bedside, and Dr. Anderson as well as Ms. Giusti that we saw there talking first and Geraldine Ferraro herself will be testifying before Congress on Thursday, requesting more funding to support myeloma research.



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