Cancer therapy poised for rapid advances, noted researcher says

The remarkable cancer treatment that uses a patient’s own immune cells to treat their cancer has saved a growing number of people who were close to death. But sometimes this treatment, known as CAR T cell therapy, fails, and that has perplexed researchers. That puzzle is being pieced together, and more effective variations on this therapy are on the way, a pioneer in this therapy said Thursday at a symposium at the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. A deeper understanding of how immune cells fight cancer, and better genetic engineering methods for these cells are fueling the advances, said Dr. Carl June, MD, of the University of Pennsylvania. Besides the T cell therapy, which is the best known, other immune cells called natural killer cells and macrophages are also being brought into service. Not only will the treatments get more effective, but it now appears possible that the current cost of several hundred thousand dollars could in the long term drop dramatically, June said. He presented information from research yet to be published pointing to those advances. Just one engineered cell can proliferate and defeat a cancer, June said, citing results from one patient. That patient was infused with many genetically engineered immune cells. One of those cells proliferated more than all others, and its descendants eradicated 5 pounds of tumor cells. Engineering one cell is far less expensive than growing a batch of cells, June said, and it is conceivable that could bring down the cost of therapy to that of a regular blood transfusion. That cost varies between several hundred to a few thousand dollars. Automation will also help, June said in an interview after his speech. “It’s very cheap to do this with machines, rather than it being done it by hand, which it is right now with scientists and technicians,” June said. However, it’s unclear how difficult it will be to replicate that finding in other patients, June said in the interview. Safety Continue Reading

Cancer stem cells target of new grant to UCSD scientists

California’s stem cell agency has awarded $5.8 million to UC San Diego researchers to develop a new variation of cancer immunotherapy.The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, approved the grant last week to adapt CAR T-cell technology to fight cancer stem cells. These deadliest of cancer cells have stem cell-like properties that enable them to survive treatments against them and grow profusely. One surviving cell can re-create an entire tumor.CAR T-cell therapy, pioneered by Dr. Carl June at the University of Pennsylvania, has been used against blood cancers. While not all of those gravely ill patients have survived, a number have experienced dramatic and long-lasting remissions.UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center physicians led by Ezra Cohen will experiment with the therapy to deal with a variety of hard-to-treat solid tumors. These include head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, triple-negative breast cancer, pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancers. The preliminary research that yielded this potential treatment was funded by the San Diego-based Immunotherapy Foundation.Here’s how CAR T-cell therapy works: Doctors genetically engineer a patient’s T cells, part of the immune system, to recognize a protein, called an antigen, on cancer cells so they can destroy them.The T cells are given what is called a chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR. This is an artificial construct that can recognize the antigen on cancer cells, signaling the immune system to attack. The antigen targeted varies with different versions of the technology.The T cells are removed from the patient, given the cancer-fighting receptor construct, grown to sufficient numbers, then re-infused into the patient. The cells act as living drugs. They tend to stick around in the patient, ready to grow and attack again if the cancer recurs.While this has been demonstrated in blood cancers, solid tumors pose a more difficult problem, because immune cells have more limited access Continue Reading

Facing deadly cancer, Vista woman plans her wedding

It was a complete shock in June when Ashley Neumann learned she has a rare and aggressive cancer, one that often kills within nine months. Rather than planning her funeral, the 31-year-old Vista woman immediately started planning her wedding. “The only way to make it through something so devastating is to be positive,” said Neumann, who was already in a committed relationship with longtime love, David Mitchell, with whom she’s raising two children. Their world turned upside down when Neumann was diagnosed with NUT midline carcinoma, a squamous cell cancer that generally affects the midline of the body such as the head, neck and center of the chest. Less than 10 percent of those who have it are cured, according to Dr. Kathryn Gold, the UC San Diego oncologist treating Neumann. A week after the terrible diagnosis, Neumann and Mitchell, 37, got married in a small civil ceremony. But Neumann had her heart set on more — a big country wedding with a lovely dress and her little boys as ring-bearers. “Some people want the vacation of their dreams,” she said. “My dream was to get married and have my father walk me down the aisle.” As word got around, her friends started rallying to make it happen. A GoFundMe account was created and has since raised about $2,500, toward a $10,000 goal. Strangers have also stepped forward to donate items like small succulents in individual pots, to be used as wedding favors. “I just wanted her to have her wedding, to encourage her to keep fighting,” said friend Stacie Smith, who set up the account. Neumann said the outpouring of support has buoyed her. “It’s been amazing,” she said. A busy mom to two boys, she first sought medical help earlier this year for a nagging cough and pain deep in her shoulder. Initial treatments were for bronchitis and pneumonia. Still sick, in May she went in to the emergency room at a La Jolla hospital, and a CT scan revealed a cancerous Continue Reading

Scripps hires MD Anderson exec to remake its cancer program

Scripps Health went right to the source to find a leader for its new collaboration with Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center.The health system announced Thursday that Dr. Thomas Buchholz, a well-known executive at the nation’s top-ranked oncology operation, will travel west to serve as the first medical director of the Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center.Finalized in August of 2016, Scripps has billed the affiliation, slated to open for patient care this summer, as an opportunity to increase the rigor and reach of its existing cancer services, bringing its protocols into alignment with an organization that boasts the largest number of clinical trials in the nation and a network of partners that reaches far beyond Texas.Attaching MD Anderson’s name, which often appears at the top of cancer program rankings, to Scripps’ existing cancer program is sure to get the notice of patients. The endeavor has not sat well with Moores Cancer Center at UC San Diego, which expressed concern in 2016 that the collaboration would be little more than a marketing effort.However, Chris Van Gorder, Scripps’ chief executive officer, said in an email that hiring Buchholz proves that Scripps is serious about making the kinds of investments necessary to increase the stature and capacity of its cancer program.“We have literally been looking for the right physician to take on this important role for more than a year,” Van Gorder said in an email. “We wanted someone who had extensive clinical and research experience, was well respected nationally by colleagues and had experience with (National Institutes of Health) designated cancer centers.”There is no doubt that Buchholz knows what it takes to run a world-class cancer program.In his 20 years with MD Anderson, which operates a cancer program that is usually ranked No. 1 by publications such as U.S. News & World Report, Buchholz has held a wide range of responsible positions from division Continue Reading

UC San Diego Health expands cancer services in Coachella Valley

UC San Diego Health and Eisenhower Health in the Coachella Valley will deepen an existing collaborative effort around cancer care, working together on initiatives from clinical trials to tumor boards, the two organizations announced Thursday. A five-year affiliation agreement between the two organizations aims to broaden the range of services that the Eisenhower Lucy Curci Cancer Center can offer in Rancho Mirage and in six oncology clinics throughout the valley. It also creates a “concierge” service for patients who travel to UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla when their conditions are severe enough that they can’t be handled in the desert community. As she has in other instances where her organization has brokered allegiances outside the main San Diego market, Patty Maysent, UC San Diego Health’s chief executive officer, was careful to note that this is not a play to transfer lots of cancer patients out of their communities. Nor is it, she said, a situation where Moores specialists will seek to supplant already-established local oncologists. “We’ll put boots on the ground if the community needs a certain type of surgeon or medical oncologist. But if the medical community in the valley feels they’re already covered, then we don’t want to step on their toes,” Maysent said. In a statement, G. Aubrey Serfling, Eisenhower’s chief executive, said the affiliation is “bringing leading-edge science to the desert, making dramatic new capabilities available locally, capabilities for which cancer patients used to have to leave town.” The two organizations first started exploring a cancer connection in 2015, and changes in state law caused the relationship to grow more slowly than first anticipated, Maysent said. Plans for UCSD to operate a cancer clinic within Eisenhower’s facilities under the university’s existing operating license turned out to be legally impossible, so a Continue Reading

President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act dooms me to die: cancer patient

A California cancer patient says President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act is costing her the world-class medical team that has kept her alive for seven years. Edie Littlefield Sundby, who is battling stage 4 gallbladder cancer, said her “affordable, lifesaving medical insurance policy” is being canceled because her insurance company refuses to participate in Obamacare. “I am a determined fighter and extremely lucky. But this luck may have just run out,” Sundby wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. She said she is facing a life-or-death dilemma when her policy ends on Dec. 31: get coverage through the state government health exchange and lose access to her cancer doctors, or go broke paying up to 50% more outside the exchange. Her insurance company, UnitedHealthcare, announced in May that it will not participate in California’s insurance exchange, a spokesman for that state’s Department of Insurance said Monday. UnitedHealthcare only has about 8,000 customers in California, or a mere 2% of the state’s individual market, making it tough to compete with Kaiser Permanente and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield of California, which share 87% of the market. Cheryl Randolph, spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare, said the company is taking a wait-and-see-attitude about the California insurance exchange. “Because of UnitedHealthcare of California’s historically small presence in the individual market and the fact that individual consumers in the state are well served with many competitive product offerings, we will focus on our employer group insurance and Medicare business in California for 2014,” Randolph said. The company’s decision leaves customers like Sundby, 62, in the lurch. “For a cancer patient, medical coverage is a matter of life and death,” Sundby wrote. “Take away people’s ability to control their medical-coverage Continue Reading

Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn undergoing surgery to remove new cancerous tumor inside right cheek

SAN DIEGO - Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn is undergoing surgery to remove a new cancerous tumor inside his right cheek. Gwynn, now San Diego State’s baseball coach, had previously had a malignant growth removed from the same spot in August 2010. Gwynn’s wife, Alicia, told ESPN that doctors do not believe the cancer has spread outside of Gwynn’s salivary gland. But she said she expected to know more after Tuesday’s surgery at the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California San Diego. Gwynn had blamed the original growth on his use of smokeless tobacco. Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

DigniCap, an experimental cold cap, may help cancer patients undergoing chemo keep hair

A mechanical strap-on cap worn during chemotherapy may one day keep cancer patients from losing their hair. Four patients here in the U.S. are trying out the "DigniCap" - a hat that contains a cooling gel and fits tightly on the head - reports During treatment, the gel chills the hair follicles, thus restricting the amount of chemotherapy that reaches them. San Francisco breast cancer patient Heather Millar, one of the patients trying out the experimental treatment, still has most of her hair despite the fact that she's already had three chemotherapy sessions. "I think that if women knew about this, there would be a total stampede," said Millar, who blogs about her experiences on "My Left Breast." The idea of losing her hair devastated the 47-year-old freelance writer last summer, when she learned she would undergo chemo. She's not alone. Dr. Hope S. Rugo, who directs breast oncology and clinical trials education at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Care Center. "It's torture for the women," Rugo said. "Patients will say to me, 'I know this sounds stupid, it seems so much like my vanity, but the thing I’m most worried about is losing my hair.' " The DigniCap, made by Dignitana in Lund, Sweden, is part of a trial limited to patients whose breast cancer is in the early stages. While UCSF is now one of the two sites in this country testing Dignicap, it will soon be tested at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, according to Dr. Susan A. Melin, an associate professor of hematology and oncology in the comprehensive Cancer Center at the school. Patients wearing the caps, in which the gel is cooled to -30 Celsius, are instructed to change the caps frequently during and after their treatments and sometimes switch caps 15 times during a treatment so that the proper scalp temperature is maintained. Keeping the scalp cool causes the blood vessels around the hair roots to contract, so that the hair follicles don’t get Continue Reading

Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn announces he has partoid cancer, says it may be linked to chewing tobacco

SAN DIEGO - Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn says he has cancer in a salivary gland.He told The San Diego Union-Tribune the cancer was discovered last month and he faces seven to eight weeks of treatment - radiation five times a week and chemotherapy once a week."The doctors have told me they feel they caught the cancer early and there was not much of it there," he said in a story published Saturday.The parotid cancer was diagnosed after the former Padres star had a third round of surgery since 1997 to remove a tumor on the parotid gland. The previous procedures found no malignancies.Gwynn is San Diego State's baseball coach, and the school confirmed Gwynn's condition to The Associated Press. Gwynn plans to return to his alma mater, which he has coached since 2003."They say this is a slow moving but aggressive form of cancer," Gwynn said. "I'm going to be aggressive and not slow moving in treating this."Gwynn said he was concerned the cancer could be linked to his career-long practice of using chewing tobacco."I haven't discussed that with the doctors yet, but I'm thinking it's related to dipping," said Gwynn, who resumed the practice of using chewing tobacco after the first two surgeries.Dr. Kevin Brumund, a neck and throat specialist at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center, told the newspaper there have been no studies linking parotid cancer and chewing tobacco, which is now banned in minor league baseball.   Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

Avoiding late-night eating could lower breast cancer risk, study says

Skipping that midnight snack may help reduce the risk of breast cancer, new research has found. Fasting overnight — for 12 hours or more — significantly lowers glucose levels in the body, says a University of California San Diego School of Medicine study. A high level of glucose in the blood is linked to greater breast cancer risk. “It’s just such a simple and understandable intervention,” said lead author Dr. Ruth Patterson, an associate director at the university’s Moores Cancer Center. Patterson said eating the last meal of the day before 8 p.m. is ideal; fasting from midnight to noon would not have the same effect . The research was published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Continue Reading