On Sunday December 7 (2014) CBS’s famed 60 Minutes devoted a thirteen minute segment titled “Disrupting Cancer” to physician and billionaire businessman Patrick Soon-Shiong, MD‘s advocacy and use of the rapid gene sequencing of tumor cells to help zero in specific drugs or other agents that will eradicate them. Later the same day, Forbes’s writer Matthew Herper published an article in which he stated something virtually everyone doing cancer work knows, namely that “Everyone is looking to use DNA sequencing to better pick cancer drugs. And in some ways, Soon-Shiong is an odd person to pick as a spokesperson for this, because he’s just getting started. ” (Here Is What ’60 Minutes’ Didn’t Tell You About The Billionaire Who Is Trying To Disrupt Cancer Care).
This is not to say that with Dr. Soon-Shiong’s deep pockets and army of computer experts and researchers he will not wind up making major inroads in this area of biomedicine. And with cancer striking so many, progress is welcome whether it comes out of a one person lab or a research enterprise that fills buildings or is stretched across many continents.
Nova Cells is no stranger to finding ways to “disrupt cancer”. It has, in fact, focused on a treatment approach that combines attacking tumors using donor immune cells (from healthy young people) and specific compounds that gum up the inner machinery in cancer cells while leaving healthy cells. It has been a spectacularly successful quest that started with the treatment of a 71 year old gentleman from the Pacific Northwest who was in the last throes of end-stage prostate cancer that had spread into his liver and bones. He was, in fact, so bad off that NCIM doctors thought he might not live more than a handful of days, at best. But, like so many people struggling with cancer, he was a spirited fighter who simply would not entertain abandoning hope until, as he put it, “I take my last breathe”.
This determined chap knew the score going into treatment, namely that he was volunteering to undergo something very experimental in nature. But he was resolutely committed to “fighting the good fight”, even if this pitched battle proved his last. Seeing his determined spirit, the MDs set about stabilizing him to help insure he could handle the biological blitzkrieg (lightening war) that NCIM’s experimental tumor-killing method was expected to unleash in his body.
Three days later the doctors began daily treatments using cancer-fighting cells (called granulocytes) that had been previously isolated from the blood of many young, healthy volunteers and then combined and infused by intravenous (IV) means. In addition, he was to be given intentionally HLA mismatched umbilical cord stem cells.
If the treatment worked as anticipated, the donor granulocytes would attack the tumors and also send a “wake up call” to the immune system, i.e., alert the fellow’s own immune cells that something alien was present which they would then attack (One problem in cancer is that tumors send out biochemical signals that suppress the sufferer’s own innate tumor-fighting cells). In addition, the HLA mismatched umbilical cord blood stem cells would be attracted by growth factors secreted by the tumors, attach to them, and then be attacked by the patient’s own immune cells which would react to them as a foreign presence.
The outcome? He did had a mild immune reaction (rash) that was easily suppressed using an IV antihistamine. This is how NCIM’s own patient care coordinator, Grace Pena, Ph.D. cand., summed up what transpired:
“Within three days his face was pinkish and his hands were getting pink. He was eating so well that the staff could not believe it. After the 7th primed donor granulocyte treatment he was walking 1/2 mile around the hospital, and feeling great. He was feeling so good in fact that he decided to return to his home state of Washington to finish up a million dollar real estate deal. NCIM doctors and staff protested wanting him to finish the entire course of therapy but he was adamant about getting home, but promised to return and complete his care once his real estate deal was completed. This he did. By October his US oncologist reported that his PSA is 1.1, his prostate is smaller than a normal 20 year olds, and he could find no cancer at all. Also, his Alkaline Phosphatase level which was about 2,000 during his treatment had dropped to something around 89.”
This fellow remains in full remission to this day.
Following this exciting clinical success, other end-stage cancer patients were treated (prostate, breast, lung, others) using the same method. Fifty percent (50%) experienced tumor shrinkage (partial remission) while the rest (50%) went into full remission.
In addition, other cancer-fighting measures were tested both alone and in combination with the donor granulocytes & cord blood stem cells (Gr-UCSC). Those that resulted in tumor shrinkage or obliteration when used alone, as well as those that bolstered the anti-cancer impact of the Gr-UCSCs were retained.
Among these were two chemical compounds that throw a monkey wrench into the tiny power-generating factories (mitochondria) in tumor cells but do not adversely affect normal cells. They are, in technical parlance Patrick Soon-Shiong, MD, selective for malignant cells.
NCIM also selectively utilizes a unique injectable protein that amplifies the cancer-fighting activity of a patient’s own macrophages.
Returning now to that 60 Minutes segment: Dr. Soon-Shiong beamed about tackling cancer at an immunological level. Nova Cells doctors and staff wish him well in this quest, but can’t help adding that in many ways we left the starting gate years ago and are “already there” (That is, have made demonstrable progress and enjoyed great success).
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