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High hopes

By JOANN PETASCHNICK

 

Jeff Capstran is a stage four cancer survivor following a unique treatment for cancer patients.


Jeff Capstran wasnít supposed to be here today.

The Milwaukee resident was diagnosed with melanoma in 1993 at the age of 25, when a mole on his leg was determined to be malignant. "After treatment, I was fine until 2006 when I felt a lump in my leg, which turned out to be a softball-sized tumor. By that time, I was married and had young children. This time it had progressed to the point where I was told to get my affairs in order," he says.

Fortunately, Capstranís neighbor is an oncology nurse who helped him get an appointment with Dr. John P. Hanson Jr., medical director of the Immunology Department at Aurora St. Lukeís Medical Center and the principal investigator of the Young TIL (Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes) Clinical Trial.

"Dr. Hanson recommended going to see Dr. Steven Rosenberg at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, M.D.," he says. "I was willing to try anything. My attitude was, Ďbring it oní."

Capstran underwent the treatment several years ago in Bethesda and is still in remission today. The treatment involves a unique combination of chemotherapy along with immune system cells (lymphocytes) and tumor tissue from the patient. "Iím one of the lucky ones. I wasnít supposed to make it this far, but Iím here and Iím very grateful," says Capstran.

The Young TIL Clinical Trial has shown remarkable signs of success in the treatment of stage IV metastatic melanoma, and is now being offered to patients in Milwaukee, says Hanson. Previously, the trial was only offered in Israel and at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

"When a person has an injury or infection, their immune system fights back until the infection is gone. With cancer, the immune system is shut down by the cancer cells and cannot fight back," Hanson explains. "In this trial, we remove the lymphocytes from the tumor and try to grow them in a culture until we have a very large number of cells, called young TIL cells, which we use to try to overwhelm and kill the cancer cells."

Dr. John P. Hanson Jr.


Individuals who qualify for this trial donate blood and tumor tissue, which are processed by specially trained researchers in the Immunotherapy Lab at Aurora St. Lukeís Medical Center in Milwaukee. After the cells have been grown to a sufficient number, patients are admitted to the hospital to receive chemotherapy drugs, administered over a period of seven days to weaken their immune system to prepare it to receive the TIL cells and avoid rejection. Next, the cells are reinfused into the patient with the purpose of shrinking the tumor. "The TIL cells are like sharks; they kill by attaching to the cancer and disrupting its ability to reproduce," Hanson says. Finally, the patient receives the drugs Interleuken-2 and Filgrastim to help their immune system recover. The entire process takes less than a month, but after patients are discharged from the hospital, they are monitored for progress and for side effects.

When Capstran made the trip to Bethesda, Rosenberg performed the surgery at the NIH to remove the tumor in his leg. He remained at the NIH for treatment after the surgery. "Ten months later, Rosenberg was trying this new protocol or clinical trial, which is now being done at St. Lukeís. They removed blood and tumor cells from my body and grew them in the lab and then re-introduced them. I say that itís like Pac-man, the way these cells devoured the cancer cells," he explains.

While the protocol has been quite successful, it does not work for everyone, so Capstran knows just how fortunate he is. "More than three years later, I am going in for regular blood work and scans and things have been good. Now, I work out. I am active. I get to enjoy my family. Something like this puts things into perspective."

The Young TIL Clinical Trial has been going on for about nine months and has five patients participating, but they are looking for at least 30 patients, Hanson says. For more information, contact Aurora St. Lukeís Immunotherapy Department at (414) 649-5818.

Great Ideas

The IDEAraiser: A Global Journey for Cancer Research is being held Feb. 17 from 5 to 9 p.m. at the historic Pritzlaff Building at 333 N. Plankinton Ave., Milwaukee. The free event will provide information about cancer prevention and treatment, food samplings from local restaurants and entertainment. Visit www.theidearaiser.com to RSVP and for more details.