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A groundbreaking cancer treatment hits a home run

Using the body’s own immune system to destroy cancer has been the holy grail for cancer researchers for decades. At the St. Jude Crosson Cancer Institute, the promise of immunotherapies and targeted therapies—designed to help the immune system recognize and kill cancer cells—has moved from the lab to the bedside, with often remarkable outcomes. Just ask Don Kwart.

In 2013, a colonoscopy revealed the 64-year-old had Stage II colon cancer, and surgery to remove the diseased colon tissue was followed by six months of chemotherapy. While imaging and blood work showed the treatment was successful, several months later, the aggressive cancer had returned and metastasized. More chemotherapy over the next year at first slowed the cancer’s growth—and then simply stopped working.

In the past, the failure of surgery and chemotherapy would signal the end of available treatment options. But after genetically profiling Don’s cancer, David Park, MD, Medical Director of Oncology Services and a board-certified oncologist with St. Jude Heritage Medical Group, offered a new strategy: an experimental immunotherapy, called Keytruda.

Keytruda targets activity within a cancer cell, activity which permits the cancer to protect itself from an immune system response. By “uncloaking” the cancer cells, Keytruda allows the immune system’s T-cells to complete their search-and-destroy mission. The FDA had approved it for melanoma and lung cancer at that time, but not for colon cancer. However, Dr. Park believed the early data looked promising for cancers with the same genetic markers as Don’s.

He arranged “compassionate access” with the pharmaceutical company, allowing Don to immediately begin receiving the investigational therapy. Don responded to the immunotherapy almost immediately. “For me, it’s been a miracle drug,” says the father of five and grandfather of two. “I feel better than I have in years. I should be the ‘poster child’ for Keytruda.”

Once chemotherapy stops working, life expectancy is typically six to eight months. For Don, that milestone was over two years ago. And if you want to talk to him about it, you’ll need to catch him between baseball games: Don’s son is one of the high school team’s starting pitchers and Don never misses an inning.

Over a year after Don began therapy, the FDA approved the use of Keytruda for any tumor with the genetic feature of deficient mismatch repair (a marker in Don’s cancer)—a first in the history of cancer therapy.

“Treating tumors based on their genetic or molecular  characteristics—instead of where they are located—is a paradigm change,” explains Dr. Park, who says the number of  immunotherapies and targeted therapies doubled last year with many more in the pipeline. “By finding the Achilles’ heel of a tumor, we can maximize the likelihood of success while avoiding therapies that are unlikely to work.”

At the Crosson Cancer Institute, state-of-the-art molecular profiling of tumors is now routine for patients with colon, breast, lung, melanoma, head and neck, pancreas and other cancers—as well as for patients who have  experienced a reoccurrence.

“Immunotherapies and targeted therapies are moving us much closer to a cure,” says Dr. Park, explaining that clinical trials involving immunotherapies alone, or combined with other treatments, are underway at St. Jude for nearly a dozen different cancers. As the hospital’s board-certified oncologists aggressively pursue new breakthroughs, St. Jude has been among the nation’s top participants in several recent research trials.

The Crosson Cancer Institute is a member of Precision Oncology Alliance, working with other nationally-recognized cancer centers to advance tumor profiling and research to better diagnose, treat and bring personalized precision medicine to all cancer patients.

For more information, please contact the Center for Hematology and Oncology at (714) 446-5900.

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