MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Two years ago a dog named Batman made a fairly miraculous recovery from a killer cancer. What doctors learned from Batman is now showing real promise at helping save people.
One year after being treated for a tumor that kills most dogs within 30 days of diagnosis, Batman, a 12-year-old pooch, was cancer-free.
University of Minnesota veterinary surgeon Liz Pluhar cut out most of the tumor. To mop up the scattered cancer cells, Batman was given a custom cancer vaccine.
Under a research grant, nine dogs had the procedure and all of them had their brain cancers shrink or disappear.
“We did it in mice and we cured mice. Then we did it in dogs and we cured dogs,” said pediatric neuro-oncologist Dr. Chris Moertel. “Now it’s a matter of proving the practicality in human beings.”
Seventeen-year-old Zach Mathieu is helping put the cancer vaccine to the test. Until last October, the world knew Zach as dynamite wakeboarder, an A-student and all-around great kid from a big, loving family.
Then he was told he had eight months to live.
“I was falling a lot,” Zach said.
“He was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, stage four, multi-forming,” said Zach’s mother, Jennifer Mathieu. “It’s a very nasty, aggressive form of brain cancer.”
After chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, Zach was out of options, so his family brought him to the University of Minnesota where Zach was accepted for the first round trial of the cancer vaccine.
The trial led to some very good news.
“This is phenomenal that you’re at week eight and you have a completely stable to smaller tumor,” Zach was recently told at a check-up.
Moertel said the process begins with tumor cells in the lab.
“We grown that in a selective culture so that it expresses the characteristics of what we call brain tumor stem cells,” said Moertel. “And we combine that with cells from the patient’s immune system that we harvest those in a process we call phoresis.”
Moertel said they’re much more reluctant to use the word “cure” when talking about human patients, but the nine volunteers enrolled in this first phase of the human clinical trial, including Zach, can hope to achieve a better quality of life.
“We’re still fairly early, but we’re gratified to see that Zach has had no tumor progression at all,” said Moertel.
“I consider Dr. Moertel a hero,” Zach said.
There are lots of heroes in this story at the University of Minnesota Veterinary College, University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital, the volunteers and Moertel’s team.
“He’s given us hope. That’s a great thing,” said Zach’s mother.
Zach will get his custom vaccine once a month for a year. Just as the research in dogs now helps people, researchers say what is learned in people could be used to save more dogs.
It could also speed up the progress of medicine far faster than what could be accomplished in the lab alone.