Local Dream Team Develops Cancer Treatment That’s Saving Lives

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 8406By:: Lisa Sigell

From: cbslocal.com

This Friday, CBS will air the annual star-studded telethon Stand Up To Cancer, which has raised millions for cancer research.

That research has made possible medical discoveries that are saving lives.

Health reporter Lisa Sigell shows us one such discovery here in Los Angeles. A dream team of Cal Tech and UCLA scientists and doctors have created a treatment that’s giving hope to cancer patients who once had none.

“The tumor that was there was gone,” Redondo Beach resident Lynn Fadale said.

Sherman Oaks resident Thomas Stutz said: “It’s been a miracle. I mean, that’s the only way to describe it.”

Fadale and Stutz were both stage IV cancer patients when they started taking MK-3475.

The medication was developed by chemistry professor James Heath and his lab at Cal Tech in Pasadena, who work day and night, to help UCLA oncologist Antoni Ribas try to cure his incurable cancer patients.

Theirs is one of many dream teams made possible by Stand Up To Cancer funding. Discoveries made in Cal Tech labs like Heath’s are making their way into medications administered in hospitals like UCLA faster than ever.

Heath and Ribas are focusing on advanced melanoma because it’s so tough to treat. No matter how strong the chemotherapy or radiation, for most patients, there’s no benefit at all. They would lose their hair, and have nausea and vomiting and no benefit,” Ribas said.

But that could be changing.

MK-3475 works by enlisting the body’s immune system to hunt and kill cancer cells.

“If you want to cure a patient you want to get rid of every single damn tumor cell, every single one of them. And that means you need a drug that is constantly surveilling the body and looking out for those tumor cells,” Heath said.

The professor uses microchambers to study the black halo of proteins that surround each of the body’s immune cells. It’s these proteins that hunt down a cold or the flu and help a person get better. Researchers believe our immune systems can be trained to do the same thing for cancer without the side effects of conventional cancer treatments.

“One of the great hopes of immunotherapy is that we would figure out how to treat the cancer without damaging the patient,” Heath said.

This treatment seems to do a better job of helping immune cells discriminate between the body’s normal cells and cancer cells without triggering a severe immunoresponse.

Before Stutz began the experimental treatment, he was hardly eating and in a wheelchair. Tests showed tumors in his liver and lungs. He felt he was days from dying.

“This weekend, I went on a 30-mile bike ride in Santa Monica,” said Stutz, who’s been on MK-3475 for a year and a half. “I’m very active, pretty much back to my old self.”

He said he feels good even though he’s still getting treatment.

Fadale has been on MK-3475 for 13 months. A recent PET scan showed everything was all clear.

“Who knows what would have happened, you know, if I hadn’t had the drug?” Fadale asked.

MK-3475 doesn’t work for everyone. In trials, the treatment worked for a third of the patients who took the medication. But these patients often had no other hope.

Its creators are no more energized than ever to find nontoxic solutions that work for all cancer patients.

Heath said: “This is like a big hunt, and once you start having success you smell blood. We’re beginning to see the light. It’s very exciting.”