How Tom Howing turned to stem cells to battle back against a deadly cancer

As we enter the new year, CIRM’s 2017 Annual Report will be posted in less than two weeks!  Here’s one of the people we are profiling in the report, a patient who took part in a CIRM-funded clinical trial.

Tom Howing

In March of 2015, Tom Howing was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Over the next 18 months, he underwent two rounds of surgery and chemotherapy. Each time the treatments held the cancer at bay for a while. But each time the cancer returned. Tom was running out of options and hope when he heard about a CIRM-funded clinical trial using a new approach.

The clinical trial uses a therapy that blocks a protein called CD47 that is found on the surface of cancer cells, including cancer stem cells which can evade traditional therapies. CD47 acts as a ‘don’t eat me’ signal that tells immune cells not to kill off the cancer cells. When this ‘don’t eat me’ signal is blocked by the antibody, the patient’s immune system is able to identify, target and kill the cancer stem cells.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer I knew I had battle ahead of me. After the cancer came back again they recommended I try this CD47 clinical trial. I said absolutely, let’s give it a spin.

“I guess one is always a bit concerned whenever you put the adjective “experimental” in front of anything. But I’ve always been a very optimistic and positive person and have great trust and faith in my caregivers.

“Whenever you are dealing with a Phase 1 clinical trial (the earliest stage where the goal is first to make sure it is safe), there are lots of unknowns.  Scans and blood tests came back showing that the cancer appears to be held in check. My energy level is fantastic. The treatment that I had is so much less aggressive than chemo, my quality of life is just outstanding.”

Tom says he feels fortunate to be part of the clinical trial because it is helping advance research, and could ultimately help many others like him.

“The most important thing I would say is, I want people to know there is always hope and to stay positive.”

He says he feels grateful to the people of California who created CIRM and the funding behind this project: “I say a very heartfelt thank you, that this was a good investment and a good use of public funds.”

He also wants the researchers, who spent many years developing this approach, to know that they are making a difference.

“To all those people who are putting in all the hours at the bench and microscope, it’s important for them to know that they are making a huge impact on the lives of real people and they should celebrate it and revel in it and take great pride in it.”

2 thoughts on “How Tom Howing turned to stem cells to battle back against a deadly cancer

  1. I have a friend who has just been diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. Would this treatment help him ? If not, what is the best treatment currently available ? He is a veteran and how is the best way to access current treatment available ? I do not think just monitoring the condition while it gets worse is a great idea. Thank you for any help and advice. Barbara Keyes

    • Hi Barbara, we hope that if this clinical trial proves to be safe and continues to show promise in treating cancer that it may also be tried for prostate cancer. That is likely to be a year or more in the future. The best news is that current treatments for prostate cancer – such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation – can be effective in curing the disease. Obviously those therapies come with side effects and are not always successful but they do have a good track record. One of the reasons why doctors suggest “watchful waiting” is that for older men in particular, prostate cancer is quite slow moving and is something they are likely to die with rather than of. Our hope is that in the future there will be effective stem cell therapies that men can turn to as an alternative to the current treatments, but that is likely to be a few years in the future.

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