Melissa (Kah Poh) Loh, M.D., a senior instructor at the Wilmot Cancer Institute, has received $1 million to study a mobile exercise app for older patients with cancer. The project will likely position Loh as one of the few geriatric oncologists in the country with the skills to design and implement clinical trials testing the modern technology to track fitness in cancer patients who are 60 or older.
Loh won the grant from the National Institutes of Health through a program (K99-ROO) that’s meant to transition postdoctoral fellows into independent investigators. She had been a Wilmot Fellow, a program created more than 30 years ago by local businessman and philanthropist James P. Wilmot to support innovative projects by young researchers.
Loh will combine a mobile app delivery platform with an existing exercise program (EXCAP), which was invented by Wilmot exercise physiologist Karen Mustian, Ph.D. EXCAP is a home-based walking and strength-training program for cancer patients that has been shown to ease chemotherapy side effects such as fatigue and other symptoms of cancer and its treatment.
The app will track exercise data, symptoms, and barriers to adherence. Physicians will then be able to adjust the exercise prescription to address patient concerns.
The project starts with feedback on the app from 10 patients who have been diagnosed with blood cancers such as leukemia or myelodysplastic syndrome and are being treated with hypomethylating agents (HMAs). These drugs are often given more frequently and in lower doses than intensive chemotherapy and yet they still can provoke physical decline, fatigue, and mood disturbances in older adults.
In addition to evaluating whether exercise can help to relieve symptoms, Loh will also explore the impact of the exercise on immune system biomarkers. After the initial feedback phase, Loh will design and conduct a phase 1 clinical study for 25 patients.
Her mentors include: Mustian, who is co-leader of Wilmot’s Cancer Control and supportive Care Research Program, and co-leader Supriya Mohile, M.D., a geriatric oncology specialist at Wilmot and national leader in studying how best to address the needs of older cancer patients and their care-givers. Mohile helped to develop the nation’s first-ever geriatric oncology guidelines for physicians.