Moving Cancer Research and Treatment Forward with Clinical Trials
Ronald "Buck" Parker is a low-key guy who doesn't consider himself a hero.
After returning from Vietnam in a body cast, he set to work, turning an old farm near Arpin in central Wisconsin into a paradise filled with apple fruit trees, flowers, yard art, and a series of spring-fed ponds. He keeps them stocked with pan fish and walleyes, and invites the disabled veterans who are treated at the Tomah VA Medical Center to come and fish.
He says it's therapeutic for veterans like him who deal with post-traumatic stress from their war experiences.
"They really enjoy it, their faces just light up when they hook one,'' he says.
Similarly, when his life was in peril a second time, he made the choice to help others by signing up for two clinical trials.
He was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 2004, and sent to the Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison to be treated by Dr. Mark Albertini of the UW Carbone Cancer Center. He was so dedicated to others learning from his disease that he remembers, as he was wheeled into the operating room, signing the paperwork so that his tumors could be saved for research.
Despite chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, by 2011 his cancer had advanced to stage 4, with cancer erupting all over his body.
"It was pretty much everywhere: in my adrenal glands, in my breast, in my armpit,'' says Parker, who was too ill to do much but sit in his recliner, watching over his orchard from the window.
Dr. Albertini suggested Parker take part in a clinical trial that he was leading at UW Carbone Cancer Center.
"I figured that even if it didn't help me, they'd learn from me and it might help other people,'' he said.
Albertini has been researching using the body's immune system to fight cancer. Cancer is usually invisible to the immune system because cancer grows from the body's own cells. But Albertini was investigating a strategy in melanoma patients that was initially developed and studied in mice by Dr. Uri Galili at the University of Massachusetts. This strategy involves injecting the tumors with a protein derived from rabbit red blood cells, tagging the tumors in a way that can alert the immune system to a foreign invader.
Parker took part in the research, which was recently published in the journal Cancer Immunology, Immunotherapy. While the treatment was safe and well tolerated, it was not able to activate a sufficient immune response to stop Parker's cancer from growing.
"One night, Dr. Albertini called me at about 9:00 at night and told me he had found another clinical trial I could try," he remembers. The very next day, his wife, Karen, drove him to a hospital in Eau Claire, where he had the first of four injections of a drug that was experimental at that time and used a different method to harness the immune system to fight cancer.
Following the second round of the drug, the Parkers noticed that edges of his tumors turned fiery red. Then they began to shrink, imploding in on themselves and shrinking in diameter. Today you can't even see where the lesions once grew.
The drug that was experimental at that time, ipilimumab, was approved later that year as the first of a blockbuster group of new immunotherapy drugs.
It worked so well for Parker that he has passed the five-year milestone of being cancer-free.
Dr. Albertini is now studying an approach that is similar to the strategy that worked for Parker. He hypothesizes that the first treatment with the rabbit protein helped rev up Parker's immune system so it responded robustly when he got the second immunotherapy treatment, and he hopes to test that concept in a future study.
And Parker's cancer cells will live on in the Albertini lab at the UW Carbone Cancer Center, another way Parker is helping others by moving cancer research forward.
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Date Published: 09/20/2016