Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Royal Treatment

Susan and I returned from Houston on Saturday and boarded a plane for Chicago on Tuesday to meet with the Board of Directors of The Gateway for Cancer Research --a nonprofit that funds cancer research and which is funding the clinical trial I'm in. The people at the Gateway could not have more generous in taking care of us. First class airline tickets, stretch limo to pick us up at the airport and to take us to our various appointments and then back to our hotel and the airport for our return flight. Our meeting with the Board was scheduled for about 15 minutes but we were there for more than an hour. The Chairman of the Gateway Board, Richard Stephenson, is passionately committed to finding cures for cancer. His commitment comes from his experience with his mother's death from cancer. As a result he founded the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA), which has 5 facilities around the country. CTCA provides all of the funding for the administrative costs of the Gateway Foundation, thus, 99.9% of funds donated to the Gateway go to cancer research. Even more amazing, the organization (being financially supported by CTCA), funds clinical trials at cancer centers around the country (such as MDA), even though such institutions are competitors of CTCA.

After the Board heard from Susan and me, Mr. Stephenson immediately asked us if we could stay an extra day in order for me to be seen by a variety of specialists at CTCA to see if they could help me with some of the long term side effects I've got from all the chemo. So, we took an extra day, and I was seen by a doctor, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, and a naturalpathic doctor. CTCA has a holist approach to treatment and thus has all these specialists on staff. Without boring you with the details, the doctor provided instant help for some of my back pain and the others had some recommendations we're going to follow up on. Gifts keep falling down upon us for no reason we can think of and we continue to be full of gratitude.

All in all it was a very interesting and helpful trip. Once we got home, I got terribly sick, but am recovering quickly. Fortunately Dr. Rifkin did not hospitalize me despite the very high temp. I'm sure it's just too much travel over the last 2 weeks.

I'll check in after my next trip to Houston, sometime in February.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Millions of Mighty Mikes

Are you ready for a biology lesson?
I received 10 million of Mike's T cells on Friday, which were then boosted with a vaccine made from a protein (not my protein) and a white cell booster (GM-CSF--granulyte macrophage colony stimulating factor.) GM-CSF functions as a white blood cell growth factor. GM-CSF stimulates stem cells to produce granulocytes (neutrophils, eosinophils, and basophils) and monocytes. Monocytes mature into macrophages and are part of the immune/inflammatory cascade, by which activation of a small number of macrophages can rapidly lead to an increase in their numbers, a process crucial for fighting infection. (A T-cell is a type of infection-fighting white cell in the blood. Its normal role is to kill virus infected cells and some cancer cells. )

However the body doesn’t have enough T-cells to combat large cancerous tumours, and cancer cells often develop protective mechanisms to avoid them being recognized by the body as a disease. That's why they boosted these T cells with a vaccine and GM-CSF. I will not receive more of Mike's T cells for the time being, but I will receive the vaccine and GM-CSF shots at 4 and 8 week intervals.

This protocol is part of the clinical trial I am enrolled in. Because I'm the first one in the trial, the Gateway Foundation, which is funding the trial, is flying me to Chicago this coming week to talk to their Board of Directors about my disease and my participation in the trial. That should be interesting.

This clinical trial is a Big Deal at MDAnderson. Mike came into Houston on Wednesday for preliminary blood work before they harvested his cells on Friday. I was there starting Tuesday for the whole battery of tests. On Thursday they harvested cells from me purely to do further research on. Then on Friday, after Mike's cells were collected I returned to the clinic in the evening and received his cells, the vaccine and the GM-CSF. During that process we met the researcher who made the vaccine. A young guy who was quite excited to be a part of this project. Dr. Larry Kwak is the principal investigator in charge of this trial. Dr. Kwak has spent 20 years working on developing cancer vaccines. He is world renowned and everyone at MDA speaks of him with great respect.

Of course, Mike became quite well known in the apheresis (the drawing and separating of blood components) unit. Not sure why. Was it because he constantly referred to himself as "number one guinea pig?" Was it his mooing out loud after he was given a bovine substance with one of his meds? Was it a nurse running from him so he couldn't get a picture of them together? He is quite a character. But selfish he's not. He's made numerous trips to Houston over the past year to have his stem cells collected, to have blood work, to have various tests, to get shots, to have his T cells collected, and he's had to give himself shots at home. Similarly Susan's brother has been a godsend: opening his house to us for 4 months, driving us all over town and to and from the airport, keeping his refrigerator and cupboards full of food, having dinners waiting for us after long days at the hospital, bringing me my daily almond croissant at the hospital, getting us movies to watch at home and just taking care of us through some tough times. Yeh, we're pretty fond of our brothers.

So I guess we'll just let Mike's super charged T cells get to work in my blood. Will report back once we have info on the progress.