"The vaccine stimulates the body's immune system. At any point in time, there's a struggle between the body's immune system and cancer, and who overcomes is really who wins," said principal investigator oncologist Minal Barve. "So [the vaccine] boosts the body's immune system, so it recognizes the cancer cells as foreign, and then the body's own immune system attacks the cancer and keeps it under control."
The vaccine is made from cells extracted from the cancerous tumor. Those cells are then genetically modified to create a personalized cancer-fighting vaccine.
The team at Mary Crowley has used the vaccine in 22 patients enrolled in a clinical trial.
"The phase-one trial was open to any patient with cancer who failed all options of therapy, so it's patients who, in all honesty, you may not expect to live more than four to six months," said Dr. John Nemunaitis, the center's medical director. "There's some people who it didn't appear to help as much, but for most of the patients, this appeared to have prevented their disease from progressing, so we've been very encouraged."
Johnny Nutt, of East Texas, is one of the encouraging cases. He learned in November 2009 that the melanoma he thought was gone had spread to his lungs. The 72-year-old asked his doctor not to tell him how long he had.
Nutt came to Dallas and started the vaccines in March. He's had seven of eight scheduled injections -- one per month -- with no side effects, just remarkable results. He's lived twice as long as most patients in his condition.
"When they diagnosed me, they're like, 'You don't got very long,'" Nutt said. "And every time I walk in a doctor's office now, they're like, 'What are you doing here -- still doing here?'"
"He's basically living his normal life as if the cancer did not exist," Barve said.
"This approach should, hypothetically, work against any cancer," Nemunaitis said.
He has researched gene technology for decades, and early success convinced him the team at Mary Crowley was on the right track.
"If it wasn't for seeing a durable and complete experience, I don't know if we would've taken up the ball 20 years ago, to stick with it as long as we have," he said. "And lo and behold, other patients have been helped, so now we have what we think is the optimal components of a cancer-based vaccine."
The vaccine now being tested is in its fourth generation, and the Mary Crowley Center is among the few worldwide using it.
While the FDA-approved research therapy shows progress, the Mary Crowley team must do more trials and more research before the personalized vaccine is available to everyone.
Nemunaitis said the team has to "make sure the science is as good as it can be (and) make sure the opportunities with the FDA are as clear as can be, so that when time comes, when the masses do hear about it, we'll be there with the science, with the good patient examples."
The Mary Crowley Cancer Research Center does not charge patients involved in the clinical trials. The nonprofit center taps into philanthropic efforts to pay for research and experimental treatments.
The center, named for its founder, was established in 1992 with the goal of expanding treatment options for cancer patients through the exploration of investigational gene and cellular therapies.