Bright Hope on the Horizon – Part Four

See the beginning of Sajjad’s story in Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.


Swimming Upstream: My Struggle and Triumph Over Cancer and the Medical Establishment: New Hope in Cancer Treatment

(Jan 2020)

In February 2014, two groups of scientists in New York City presented the early data of what can only be described as a phenomenal study with phenomenal results.

In a study using sixteen adult leukemia patients, scientists took samples of each patient’s T-cells and samples of his or her cancer cells. Under laboratory conditions, they trained those T-cells to recognize certain specific traits of that patient’s leukemia cell and then attack to kill it—it was like teaching a drug-sniffing dog to find the cache of heroin. These were called “smart T-cells.”

The next step was crucial, dangerous, and amazingly clever.

The researchers cloned millions of these specially trained T-cells and then went back to the patients and gave them very toxic chemicals that destroyed their “dumb” T-cells—those that were still fooled by the cancer’s camouflaging. They then replaced them with the trained smart T-cells. 

Once infused, the trained T-cells set out like an elite commando force equipped with exact GPS coordinates and hunted down and killed the cancer cells.

The success rate of achieving a complete response was an astounding 88 percent!

The incredible success of that small study, and several others since, has sparked an explosion of interest and further studies by various medical centers and pharmaceutical companies worldwide, who are spending billions of dollars in similar research. These investments are sure to be returned many times over, of course. But it can only mean good things for cancer patients. Costs for adoptive T-cell transfer treatments now are prohibitive for individuals—upwards of $500,000 for one patient, which is totally unacceptable. But that will change in the near future.

And there were complications, of course, with ominous results for one patient. 

In one unfortunate patient, a man from New York City with Her2-positive colorectal cancer, doctors infused T-cells trained to seek out and kill Her2-positive cancer cells. The man went into respiratory arrest within fifteen minutes. His health continued to deteriorate over the next few days despite the best efforts of the medical experts. He died after four days when his lungs shut down completely. There was nothing they could do to save the patient.

An autopsy showed that the patient’s normal lung cells had traces of Her2. The “smart” T-cells had been attacking and killing the healthy lung tissues as well as the cancer.

These trained T-cells are like heat-seeking missiles. They will attack and kill as they have been trained to do—and there was no reversing this once they were set loose.

You lose any control over the missile once it is fired.

This unfortunate incident led to a temporary halt of all further experimentation in this area. The focus was shifted to try to find a way to control these smart T-cells after they were infused into the patient’s bloodstream. How do you stop these commandos if they go rogue? How do you destroy a wayward missile? 

A few different strategies have been developed to accomplish that. One of those is the development of what is called a “suicide gene”—and it is truly the stuff of science fiction. Now scientists can tag T-cells with this suicide gene. If they go haywire and start attacking normal cells, doctors can prompt them to destroy themselves, or commit suicide.

The first couple of the CAR-T Cell Therapies, as these are called, have already received an FDA approval and the newer & better ones are sure to follow.

It is nothing short of amazing. Today we are on the cusp of advances that were not even imagined just a few years ago. Now when someone disconsolately calls me for advice and tells me they have been given no more than two years to live, I tell them not to panic or lose hope. I emphasized that two years is an eternity when it comes to medical advances, the way science is exploding in its efforts to cure cancer.

“Take heart,” I tell them. “Every year, new drugs and modalities are being developed. In two or three years, you have no idea what new miracle drug may come out.” I suggest optimism and advise they focus on positive thoughts, avoid negativity and depression, refuse to panic, eat healthily, remain physically active, meditate, enjoy every little pleasure in life, and, as much as possible, avoid stress. Most of all, do not give up hope.

All that will boost your immune system and will go a long way toward beating this dangerous enemy.

Two years—or even a year—given the ways that science is moving ahead, is a terrific pronouncement. This, in no way, is meant to paint an unrealistically rosy picture. Cancer has been and continues to be an extremely deadly disease. Even though the death rate from cancer has gradually and steadily declined since 1990, there are still far too many patients dying from it. In the United States, cancer continues to be the second biggest cause of death, behind heart disease only. Over half a million patients die from cancer each year in the United States alone. More than eight million lives are lost worldwide.

I am fully aware of all that. Yet, there is no doubt that we are entering a much better and far more hopeful era. At no other time in the history of medicine have we been this tantalizingly close to achieving a major victory against cancer, a game-changing victory that could, possibly forever, change the cancer outlook. 

I believe this with all my heart.

Bright Hope on the Horizon – Part Three

See the beginning of Sajjad’s story in Part One and Part Two


Swimming Upstream: My Struggle and Triumph Over Cancer and the Medical Establishment: New Hope in Cancer Treatment

(Jan 2020)

We all are familiar with the miracle of modern antibiotics. Most infections, even the serious and life-threatening kind, can usually be cured by the proper use of antibiotics. But antibiotics cannot work without help from the patient’s immune system. 

Every day, literally hundreds of times a day, various bacteria and viruses invade our bodies. Yet, we are not constantly sick. Why? Because our immune system is always on guard, ready to fight and destroy every potential enemy. The invaders are promptly killed and the threat is eliminated without us ever becoming aware of it. 

It is only when the bacteria manage to establish a beachhead that we show signs of illness. Even then, the immune system plays a critical role in helping the antibiotics conquer the infection. Antibiotics simply cannot work if the immune system is diseased and unable to help, as in HIV. That is precisely why in HIV even a minor infection can threaten the patient’s life despite the use of antibiotics. Our immune system is the most powerful, sophisticated, efficient, and elite fighting army one can imagine.

So, why does it not fight the cancer and kill it off? For decades, medical scientists have struggled with precisely this question. Why was the immune system actually ignoring the horrid invasion? Why was it sitting quietly by while the cancer invaded and destroyed one vital organ after another until it killed the patient?

It has been only in the last few years that we have realized what was happening.

Cancer is wily and cunning. That, of course, is not a surprise. But researchers have begun to understand that cancer cells actually make themselves invisible to the immune system. We still do not have a complete understanding as to how, but we have learned a few things. 

This we do know: The immune system fights off various invasions through a system of checkpoints. Say, for example, you have strep throat. When the germs first invade, an alarm is triggered which serves to mobilize the body’s immune forces. They attack the strep germs and kill them off. Soon, the immune forces reach a checkpoint where they must stop to receive fresh orders. If the threat persists, the order will be to continue the attack. On the other hand, if the threat has been eliminated, that information will be conveyed to the immune forces, thereby shutting them down. Obviously, we do not want our army to keep firing after the enemy is dead. It will only cause harm to the civilians. Similarly, our immune system must not go on unchecked in order to prevent damage to the normal and healthy tissues. 

So, our immune response is a pattern of repeated starts and stops regulated by a series of checkpoints. 

Scientists have learned that cancer has the ability to trigger checkpoints or manipulate the checkpoint signals. As soon as the immune forces attack the cancer, it initiates a checkpoint signal to terminate that immune response. Cancer has a way of making the checkpoint say—to continue the analogy—”No problems here. The threat is gone. All clear now.” 

So far, we only know about a couple of different ways this is accomplished. But it is very likely that the wily cancer has many other ways to fool the immune system. Our knowledge is still growing by the day.

Once scientists understood that mechanism, they began to develop medicines that neutralized the false checkpoint signals created by the cancer, thus allowing the immune system to continue to attack and kill the cancer cells. These drugs are called checkpoint blockade therapies.

In clinical trials, these medicines have produced a 66 percent success rate against an extremely deadly cancer, malignant melanoma. This is an astonishing success, and we may even improve upon that success as we learn to use different drug combinations and newer and better drugs are developed. Each day brings the dawn of a new hope.  One of the newer checkpoint blockade drugs, Pembrolizumab (Keytruda) has consistently shown encouraging results in a variety of, hitherto untreatable, cancers. 

Another prong in the battle that has brought jaw-dropping positive results is something called adoptive T-cell transfer. This is the stuff of science fiction. And the exciting results it is producing have turned cancer research on its ears.

Using T-cells to kill cancer will put medicine on the cusp of being able to say we have found a cure for cancer. Adoptive T-cell transfer therapy is the most promising technique we have to finally attain the Holy Grail of cancer medicine—to be able to utter those three magical words to the patient: “You are cured!” 

T-cells are our immune system’s killer cells. Think of them in a way as an elite commando force that can seek out and destroy the enemy. The challenge is this: because of mechanisms we are still trying to fully understand, cancer cells camouflage themselves from T-cells. So, how do you make the T-cells “see” this enemy called cancer? If they can see it, they will attack it and destroy it. 

Bright Hope on the Horizon – Part Two

Swimming Upstream: My Struggle and Triumph Over Cancer and the Medical Establishment: New Hope in Cancer Treatment

Click Here to Read Part 1

(Dec 2020)

I would like to think—hope in fact—that no future cancer patients will have to fight the way I did to get certain treatments, that doctors today could help them prevent that. Oncologists now universally accept this novel concept that each patient’s cancer is different and must be treated differently. Treatment needs to be based, not on it’s  location, but on the unique pattern of gene mutations it exhibits. This understanding has led to the development and increasing usage of a test called Genome Typing. In the simplest explanation, genes are microscopic particles (nucleotides) located on the chromosomes of a cell. The genes instruct the cell to behave in a certain way and perform certain functions. Cancer alters, mutates, a gene to send a different signal to the cell so it  performs, not its normal function, but a function suitable for the cancer’s growth. This pattern of Genetic Mutations is unique to each cancer. Discovering and, possibly, attacking these mutations is called Targeted Therapy. Let’s assume that one patient’s parotid cancer shows the same gene mutations as the other patient’s breast cancer. Therefore, both these cancers need to be treated with the same medicine. The location of the cancer is totally irrelevant.

The problem is that federal agencies and the health insurers are still stuck in the past. My cancer, the salivary duct carcinoma of the parotid is practically a twin of the ductal carcinoma of the breast. It stands to reason that a drug that worked against one is likely to work against the other too. Because breast cancer is very common and parotid cancer is exceedingly rare, it is far, far easier for researchers and drug companies to test a new drug against breast cancer than against parotid cancer. Therefore, they can present convincing data to the FDA to show that a particular new drug works against breast cancer and thus get the approval for its use in breast cancer treatment. Unfortunately, parotid cancer patients, due to their small numbers, are left out in the cold. There are plenty of drugs that are FDA approved for use for breast cancer but none for parotid cancer. This allows the health insurers to refuse payment for most new drugs for patients like me. It becomes an uphill battle, often futile, to fight. I am blessed to have had the wherewithal I did, but not everyone survives the fight.

The simple logic is that if a drug blocks Her2 and successfully treats Her2-positive breast cancer, its use should be approved for any cancer anywhere that is Her2 positive. Unfortunately, this simple logic is lost on many in the hierarchy.  Lately, there have been some encouraging signs that the FDA is moving in this direction. Insurers are still slow to respond but ultimately they will.  Tomorrow is looking better and brighter.

I think of the whole thing in this way: The evolution of cancer treatment is similar to the evolution of how we used telephones. Years ago, in the 1940s and 1950s, we had neighbors sharing the same line, first the crank-up type and then old rotary phones—party lines they were called. It would not be unusual to pick up the phone and learn that your next-door neighbor was already talking on it. You would have to wait—and hope that your neighbor would not blather on for another hour before you could make your call.

Later, we began to see home phones—one house, one line. But still, everyone in the house was on the same line. If you picked it up to make a call, you might hear your brother talking to his girlfriend. You couldn’t get on until he hung up.

Today we have cell phones and the days of the house phone are almost over; the concept of a party line is simply laughable. 

Cells phones of today are highly personalized and sophisticated communication tools. They are configured exactly to specific users’ specifications: their own phone number; the exact amount of memory they need; the number and kinds of apps they want installed; their contact list; their choice of songs, photos, videos, and documents; and even their very personal and confidential data. It is a highly personalized gadget now.

So is cancer treatment.

And that wonderful news is why if there were a better time to have cancer, to have a doctor drop the bad news on you, it is today—right now.

Why is this happening?

On one front, medical science continues to make extraordinary strides. Each new kernel of knowledge accelerates and expands what was previously known—one new discovery leads to five more. Targeted therapy is one example—but a very good one.

On a second front, doctors have begun to expand their knowledge about how to marshal the body’s own defenses, its own immune system, to attack cancer.

Former President Jimmy Carter astounded the world in December 2015 when he announced he was cancer free. Only months before, he had said it was unlikely he would survive the late-stage malignant melanoma that had spread to his brain.

He might have astonished the general public, but medical insiders were not as surprised. Mr. Carter was the beneficiary of a new wonder drug, Nivolumab, and the relatively new concept of immunotherapy for cancer—checkpoint blockade.

Bright Hope on the Horizon – Part One

Swimming Upstream: My Struggle and Triumph Over Cancer and the Medical Establishment: New Hope in Cancer Treatment

(Dec 2020)

Let’s be realistic. There is never a good time to have cancer.

Even today, caution and years of fighting to beat the odds against surviving this insidious enemy have made it an almost certainty that no doctor will ever promise that the cancer will never return. 

You will learn, in the good times, to say, “I’m cancer-free,” or “My cancer is in remission.” And you will hope the remission is permanent, but you will keep that to yourself. 

You will not dare say, “I’m cured. It’s gone. I beat it. It will never return.” 

I learned those rules as a physician and got personally reacquainted during my own struggle, so in due course, I learned to play by them. But the more years I survived and the more knowledge I gained, the more I got calls from friends and friends of friends of friends. 

“How did you do it?” they asked. “What should I do?” 

Very few people have been lucky enough to escape being touched in some way by cancer. They have a friend or a brother or a mother who died, they have an uncle who is in serious condition, or they know the nice woman down the street who was just diagnosed.

I’m happy to be where I am today—a survivor for many years. I’m gratified that people come to me for answers about what to do. 

Now, today, this is what I can tell them.

Medical science is advancing at a break-neck speed. New and exciting discoveries are being made each & every day. We now have a broad and ever-expanding range of targeted therapies. Then there is this whole new field of immunotherapy that has improved the prognosis for so many cancer patients.

Today, we can look back on how we treated cancer as recently as the 1990s and equate it with the Dark Ages—a time when very little was really understood. By comparison to what we know today, treatments thought to be cutting edge in the 1970s and 1980s seem downright primitive. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, doctors treated cancer in a one-size-fits-all manner. There were only a handful of cancer killing chemotherapy drugs that were used to treat every form of cancer in a “one size fits all” thinking—and, of course, with horrible & debilitating side effects. More often than not, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence.

In the 1980s, things began to change a bit. Doctors would treat breast cancer differently than say, lung cancer, which would be treated differently than kidney or bone cancer.

But that was missing the point as well.

Over time, doctors began to realize that it didn’t matter where the cancer began. They saw that each cancer had its own particular histology and its own unique behavior. 

My cancer is a classic example. It started in the parotid gland but, under the microscope, looked just like the ductal carcinoma of the breast. The fact that it originated from the parotid gland, not the breast, is rather irrelevant. It is basically the same cancer and should be treated the same way. And later, when it spread to the lungs or the bones, it was still the same parotid cancer, not a lung cancer or a bone cancer. It just happened to relocate there. 

My cancer had a life of its own. It was unique. It did not matter where it started from or where it migrated.

Once doctors began to see that, researchers were at the dawn of the new concept of targeted therapies. Each cancer was unique to each patient. The treatment should be individualized, targeted, against that particular cancer based on its unique characteristics, behavior, and vulnerabilities. One size does not fit all.

Click Here to Read Part Two