Health Conditions

News in Thyroid Research and Care: A Q&A with the American Thyroid Association

File this under small things that make a big impact: The butterfly-shaped thyroid gland, which is relatively small, produces a hormone that influences every cell, tissue, and organ in the body. As the American Thyroid Association explains, it regulates metabolism and affects critical body functions like energy level and heart rate.

More than 12 percent of the U.S. population will develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime, however, according to the ATA, with an estimated 20 million Americans having some form of thyroid disease. Up to 60 percent aren’t aware they have a thyroid condition, and women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.

A leading worldwide organization dedicated to the advancement, understanding, prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of thyroid disorders, the ATA has been in existence for 94 years. To learn more about the latest in this field, WomensHealth.com spoke with ATA president-elect Dr. Charles Emerson.

WomensHealth.com: Tell us about 2016. What research is ATA excited about?

Dr. Emerson: The annual meeting of the ATA was held in Denver, Colorado on September 21 through September 25. The sessions at this meeting reflected some of the research related to the thyroid that the ATA is excited about. The opening session, entitled “Thyroid breaking news” featured three talks; one of these dealt with new discoveries related to signaling by thyroid hormone and its relation to longevity. Another talk focused on patients who have a defect in the ability of their cells to respond to thyroid hormone. These patients have some of the features of thyroid hormone deficiency. The ATA is interested in supporting research that will improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with the newly discovered alpha form of thyroid hormone resistance. The third talk reflected the ATA’s interest in developing better treatments for thyroid cancer, the most common endocrine cancer.

WH: What new therapies or drugs are available that our readers should know about?

Currently there are at least five drugs that have been approved to treat thyroid cancer; most of them are used to treat medullary thyroid cancer but others are approved for differentiated thyroid cancer that does not respond to radioactive iodine. Many other drugs are under development.

ATA: Thyroid cancer is a common disease. Many patients with thyroid cancer do well.  However, some patients with either the relatively common form of thyroid cancer known as differentiated thyroid cancer or the much less common form of thyroid cancer known as medullary thyroid cancer do poorly and are at risk of dying of thyroid cancer. The traditional treatments for thyroid cancer are surgery and, for differentiated thyroid cancer, radioactive iodine is also used. Recently a group of drugs have been developed to treat thyroid cancer. Currently there are at least five drugs that have been approved to treat thyroid cancer; most of them are used to treat medullary thyroid cancer but others are approved for differentiated thyroid cancer that does not respond to radioactive iodine. Many other drugs are under development.

Drugs Approved for Thyroid Cancer:

  • Vandetanib is approved to treat: Medullary thyroid cancer that cannot be removed by surgery and is locally advanced or has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body).
  • Cabozantinib-s-malate is approved to treat: Medullary thyroid cancer that is progressive and has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body). This use is approved for the Cometriq brand of cabozantinib-s-malate.
  • Lenvatinib mesylate is approved to be used alone or with other drugs to treat: Thyroid cancer in certain patients with progressive, recurrent, or metastatic disease that does not respond to treatment with radioactive iodine.
  • Sorafenib tosylate is approved to treat: Thyroid cancer in certain patients with progressive, recurrent, or metastatic disease that does not respond to treatment with radioactive iodine.
  • Vandetanib is approved to treat: Medullary thyroid cancer that cannot be removed by surgery and is locally advanced or has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body).

WH: What continues to be the biggest challenges to those working in this field?

Thyroid hormone is essential for normal brain development and has an important role in maintaining the proper function of almost every organ of the body.

ATA: Thyroid hormone is essential for normal brain development and has an important role in maintaining the proper function of almost every organ of the body. There are many challenges in this field. The ATA is working to promote methods to determine how to identify and treat the most serious forms of thyroid cancer at an early stage. Another challenging area of concern is to make sure that all pregnant women have the proper amount of iodine in their diets as this is important for proper development of the baby. Autoimmunity is a major cause of thyroid hormone deficiency and also of Graves’ disease, a disorder where the patient gets too much thyroid hormone. We have learned much about autoimmunity but have a long way to go before we can achieve a true cure of autoimmune diseases. We think that the research we promote may ultimately help to understand other autoimmune diseases that are causes of arthritis and other non-endocrine disorders.

WH: What support is available to individuals and families who are living with a thyroid condition? 

ATA: Our website, Thyroid.org, offers advice to patients with thyroid disease and we also promote education of patients and doctors through our Friends of the ATA program and conferences. Periodically the ATA tries to hold patient education and support sessions in conjunction with its meetings.

WH: What goals does the ATA have for 2017?

ATA: The goals of the ATA are constantly evolving. In the past two years the ATA has reassessed its strategic plan and is now working to implement its many facets. Our efforts are focused on providing a forum for thyroid research to better manage and cure thyroid cancer, autoimmune thyroid diseases, nutritional disorders that affect the thyroid, thyroid health in pregnancy, and inherited thyroid disorders. The ATA also advocates for public health measures such as radiation protection in the event of a nuclear accident.

WH: What areas of research is ATA excited about for the future?

ATA: The ATA is considering developing a system to store the results of thyroid research in a manner that scientists can access. We think this will stimulate and facilitate research. We are also striving to increase awareness of thyroid disease among the public.

WH: What would you like your female readers to know about ATA that you haven’t addressed?

ATA: If you plan to have a pregnancy, make sure you are getting an adequate amount of iodine in your diet. If you have a thyroid disease, make sure it is properly treated and controlled before you get pregnant since it is not healthy for the baby to have an uncontrolled thyroid condition during pregnancy. It is important to understand that thyroid diseases are very common and can have a wide variety of symptoms. However, the symptoms that are common in thyroid disease can also occur in people without thyroid disease. Symptoms alone cannot diagnose thyroid disease. Laboratory tests are needed to determine if your thyroid is making the right amount of hormone.

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Lisa A. Goldstein

Lisa A. Goldstein

Lisa A. Goldstein is a freelance journalist with a Master’s in Journalism from UC Berkeley. She has two kids, a love of books and sweets, and wishes her metabolism is what it used to be.

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