As a retired pharmacist, Jesse Cugini, 65, knew that science advances through research. When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008, he was receptive to the idea of contributing to that research through a clinical trial. After having surgery to remove his tumor, Jesse enrolled in a clinical trial of a cancer vaccine being pioneered by Cancer Research Institute scientist Elizabeth Jaffee, M.D., at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD.
The cancer vaccine, called GVAX, is composed of pancreatic tumor cells that have been genetically engineered to produce a molecule called GM-CSF, which is known to stimulate the immune system. These cells are first irradiated to weaken them, and then injected under the skin. The idea is that the GM-CSF will stimulate immune cells called dendritic cells to pick up tumor antigens, present them to T cells, and trigger an immune response.
Jesse has been receiving the vaccine for 5 years now. A CT scan in February 2014 showed that he was still free of disease. TheAnswertoCancer (TheA2C) spoke to him while he was traveling on vacation in sunny California with his wife, Flavia.
The vaccine, to the best of my knowledge, works in this way: they get a pancreas cancer cell, kill it, hook it up to other factors, and then they inject it into you like they would any other vaccine—be it the flu vaccine, shingles vaccine, polio vaccine, etc. It’s much more complicated than that, but basically that's it in a nutshell.
My wife and I decided to do the vaccine for two reasons. One is selfish: conventional therapies don't do much for cancer of the pancreas. The second reason is that I happen to be a retired pharmacist, so I know that somebody's got to be a guinea pig to move a treatment forward. And we felt that if anything good can come out of this vaccine for other people, then it’s worth it.
When you’re healthy, you hear these dramatic stories about cancer changing people’s lives. Well that’s true in my case. It has made me a calmer person as I’ve learned not to worry anymore. It has made me live one day at a time, as life becomes a bunch of moments. This experience has made me enjoy the wind and the birds chirping. You'll never believe that unless you're in this situation.
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Rare and ultra-rare cancers affect around 20,000 people in the United States alone, according to Foundation Medicine, Inc. Immunotherapy research in some of the more common cancers and the identification of biomarkers that can predict patient responses is opening this new approach to cancer treatment up to patients whose cancers currently receive little direct attention.
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