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Final Phase Cancer Vaccine May Offer Hope


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There is no cure for advanced lung cancer. Patients usually die within a year of being diagnosed. But there could be some hope on the horizon. A San Diego biotech company has developed a vaccine it hopes will extend the lives of lung cancer patients. The vaccine has shown promise in early tests. It's now in the final phase of clinical trials. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

Once a month, lung cancer patient Cookie McNamara comes to the UCSD Moores Cancer Center.

Nobody knows whether McNamara is getting the vaccine or a placebo.

McNamara was diagnosed with end stage lung cancer in January 2007. She went through 12 weeks of chemotherapy. Then, her oncologist told her she was eligible for the clinical trial.

McNamara: She offered it to me, and I didn't even hesitate. I have such trust in the doctor. Like she says if someone offers you a silver bullet why wouldn't you take it?

People with advanced lung cancer are looking for silver bullets. That's because current therapies just aren't effective.

Dr. Luda Bazhenova is McNamara's oncologist. She's the principal investigator for the San Diego wing of the study.

Bazhenova says lung cancer is a major threat.

Dr. Bazhenova: It's a cancer that kills more people than breast, colorectal, prostate, and maybe some other couple of cancers combined. So if we are able to make a dent in cancer overall, this is the disease we should try for first.

The vaccine is the brainchild of Dr. Habib Fakhrai. He's the co-founder and chief scientific officer of the San Diego biotech company NovaRx.

Nurse and McNamara: What we're gonna do here, is give you the injection, and I think they did it two times before, this is gonna be the third time.

McNamara is taking part in a clinical trial of a vaccine for people with advanced non-

small cell lung cancer.

Nurse and McNamara: Stretch a little bit your skin, a little pinch, and let's put the medication in.

Dr. Habib Fakhrai: When I started in cancer, I was hearing that patients who have cancer are immune suppressed. And immediately it came to my mind that somehow we have to block the immune suppression in these patients if we are going to have an effective vaccine.

After trying some other agents, Fakhrai came upon a molecule produced by tumor cells.

The molecule acts as a cloaking device against the body's immune system. It basically disables the immune cells. That allows cancerous tumors to grow, and eventually kill the patient.

Fakhrai discovered the molecule has no effect on activated immune cells.

So he designed a vaccine that contains molecules that have been genetically altered to block their immune suppressive properties.

Fakhrai explains what happens when the drug is injected under the skin.

Fakhrai: We create a micro environment the size of a teardrop. All the body is immune suppressed, but that micro environment is not. When immune cells go there, they become activated because there is no immune suppression in that little micro environment.

And once they become activated, they proliferate.

Fakhrai: And they can stop the tumor in its track, and the tumor does not grow anymore. And the patients can live with their cancer for many years.

In the phase two trial, 59 percent of those who received the vaccine were still alive more than three years after their diagnosis. Most end-stage lung cancer patients don't survive one year.

What's more, there were no side effects from the vaccine.

The goal of the phase three trial is to confirm these results.

Unfortunately, Cookie McNamara may not be around to see what happens.

Since we first spoke with her, she's learned that her cancer has progressed. As a result, she's been removed from the trial.

Nonetheless, McNamara says she's proud to have been a part of it.

McNamara: We're all gonna die. And the only thing I can do, you know, is try to do it in the most graceful way possible, and you know, hopefully helping somebody.

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(KPBS News, Article by Kenny Goldberg, December 10, 2008)


The information contained in these articles may or may not be in agreement with my own opinions. They are not being posted with the intention of being medical advice of any kind.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi, Barb, and thanks for the posting.

And yes, I'm back... more tired, but still pain-free, and now wondering if those warmer parts I'm talking about visiting should include San Diego. :D

Hope all goes well with you and Bill.

Happy Holidays to both of you and your families!

With love and affection,


PS for update, see my posting earlier this week under "Good News."

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Wishing you a lovely Christmas, too, Carole.

We know about the "tired" part.

Bill and I have been very tired lately with all of the snow here in Bergen County, New Jersey.

We have had quite a bit and spent a couple of days removing it from the sidewalks here. He is more pooped than I due to the Tarceva, I think.

Today, the sun is out, but the temperature is 20 degrees. Brrrrr

There isn't much chance of anything melting while temps are this low.

That San Diego idea is a good one. Go for it. :D



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Hello Jamie,

That photo is sooo cute. :D

Bill, so far, is doing well on Tarceva. His rash is now quite extensive. Each day is gets a bit more pronounced. Now, it is on his face (cheeks very red), across the nose, down the sides of his neck, upper and mid-chest, back upper and all over the rest of his back in separated "dots."

He uses the creams and lotions faithfully, and bathes in Dove for sensitive skin. Having had the heads up was a great big advantage.

He has had two bouts with diarrhea. Once, at about a week, or so after starting, and just two days ago. Each time, he was taken unexpected by it. He did take Imodium for it both times. Otherwise, he is free to be "regular."

He had one episode of very dry and itching eyes, but it went away.

As for being tired, he is a little more tired than before taking it, but he adjusts the nap so that he can do the work he wants to do.

Actually, Jamie, he looks really well, and it is not incapacitating him in any way. We are watching the rash, though.

Since the neck nodule seems to have decreased quite a bit, we are hoping it is a good sign. It would be so lovely.

A very Merry and Blessed Christmas to you and your family, Jamie, dear. You are an inspiration to us all. God bless.


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The picture is my little elf... if you notice, his ears are poking out from under his santa hat.

It's great to hear that Bill is responding.. And yes that rash can be a pain... Have you guys seen a dermatologist? When I went they prescribed minocyline which has helped soooo much with my scalp and skin issues. Anytime I see the rash happening now, I take one of those and it usually gos away within a day. She tested the skin on my head and found it was a staph infection. I wonder if Tarceva leaves you susceptible to staph? Anyway, maybe a dermatologist could help with some of those rash problems. As far as the diarrhea, it flares up based on my diet and coincidently so does the rash. If I eat junk, my body lets me know. Nothing spicy, no pizza, certain chinese foods, greasy foods, chips, junk food, etc. My body will let me know what I need to do.

Hope this helps!! Love you guys!

Merry Christmas!


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I hope that is a sign that he is responding.

There was a study done in Canada that said that there were older folks (over 70) who were on Tarceva who had some response rates and/or stable with it. So, we hope. http://www.bio-medicine.org/medicine-ne ... ts-4928-1/

Going to Dr. West's site (Grace) gave me a lot of valuable information. He is a treasure.

Thank you for the idea about the dermatologist, Jamie. I have one who could probably see Bill. We'll call him for an appointment.

Also, your tip on the diet is good to know. He did have a pizza recently - just not sure if it was prior to the "event." :shock:

May your "little elf" and those loving parents who take such good care of him have a great Christmas. :D



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