You might describe Dr. Jorge Galante
as the ultimate educated medical consumer.
The 73-year-old orthopedic surgeon has been dealing with prostate cancer for a decade. After two years of conventional treatment, including surgery and radiation, his cancer recurred.
The Chicago resident went searching for an alternative to undergoing more of the same treatment.
His search brought him to a clinical trial involving immunotherapy now under way at Shands at the University of Florida, under the direction of Dr. Johannes Vieweg, professor and chairman of the department of urology.
Galante flies to Florida once a week to receive an injection of an experimental vaccine that enlists his body's own cells in the battle against cancer.
Every year, 230,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that Florida will rank behind only California and Texas in the number of new cases diagnosed this year.
Vieweg brought his studies of the potential prostate cancer vaccine with him from Duke University when he joined the UF College of Medicine faculty in 2006.
He says the customized therapy overcomes many of the obstacles and side effects of other forms of cancer treatment because it uses the patient's own cells.
Blood is drawn from the patient and the dendritic cells are isolated from the white blood cells. They are then genetically manipulated to detect the antigens that mark tumor cells before being reinjected into the patient.
Antigens are protein fragments produced by invaders such as viruses or bacteria that trigger an attack by the immune system. Vieweg characterizes them as "a red flag" at the surface of tumor cells.
The antigen telomerase is overexpressed in prostate cancer and other human cancers, Vieweg explained.
Dendritic cells activate the immune system by capturing the antigen - in this case, telomerase - and presenting it to the body's killer cells, called T cells.
The custom-made vaccine is prepared in a $4 million "clean room" in the UF Cancer and Genetics Research Building. It's not a vaccine in the traditional sense. A patient can't get a shot or two and prevent cancer. But it does enlist the body's immune system to battle against cancerous cells.
"We have something unique here," Vieweg said.
Because the dendritic cells can be programmed to seek out tumor cells with pinpoint accuracy, they can combat cancer without causing further harm to the body, unlike radiation or chemotherapy.
Could be widely used
The strategy being tested in the current clinical trial is not limited to prostate or kidney cancer, but is potentially applicable to all cancers, in Vieweg's view.
"We just haven't done the studies to determine which forms of cancer respond best to this therapy," the researcher said. "I'd have to say we're almost there."
"Almost there" is close enough for Galante.
As part of the clinical trial, Galante is helping to prove that the vaccine is safe and effective for use by others.
But for him, the immediate benefit is that he is able to lead a normal life.
"I have a wife, children and four grandchildren whom I want to see grow up," Galante said. "I have been waiting for this vaccine to come on line."
Diane Chun can be reached at 352-374-5041 or firstname.lastname@example.org