Cancer. It’s a single — and terrifying — term for a wide array of related diseases. Cancers’ differences in location, genetic makeup and response to treatment can be wildly dissimilar, but all tend to feature rapidly proliferating mutant cells that expand into surrounding tissue.
But what if you had a cancer that looked like cancer but didn’t behave like it? It’s a question that has confused physicians and researchers for a hundred years. Back in the early 1900’s, a German pathologist named Siegfried Oberndorfer, MD, PhD, observed cancer-like tumors that didn't feature the rapid cellular division and invasive growth that define the disease. He described them as karzinoides, “carcinoma-like,” because the cells looked malignant under a microscope, but they behaved like a benign tumor.
Early in this century cancer researchers took renewed interest in these rare and difficult to treat tumors, called neuroendocrine tumors (NETs). Arising from neuroendocrine cells — which help modulate the body’s nervous and hormonal responses — NETs can occur anywhere in the body, although the most common sites are the GI tract and lungs. Patients tend to live for many years, and the nuances of long-term treatment and symptom management require the integration of a number of specialists in the treatment plan.
“Patients with NETs really need a multidisciplinary team of experts,” said Stanford assistant professor of medicine Pamela Kunz, MD, a respected national leader in NETs research and treatment. She and her colleagues recently developed a multi-specialty program to advance patient care and research efforts at Stanford.
“The program is designed to better meet patients’ needs and determine what research questions we need to answer,” Kunz, medical director of Stanford’s the new program, recently told me.
Previously: Big data = big finds: Clinical trial for deadly lung cancer launched by Stanford study and Cancer's next stage: A report from Stanford Medicine magazine
Photo of Kunz talking with a patient by Steve Gladfelter