One of the many great pleasures of my job is that I get to meet so many amazing people. I get to know the researchers who are changing the face of medicine, but even more extraordinary are the people who are helping them do it, the patients.
It’s humbling to meet people like Karl Trede from San Jose, California. Karl is a quiet, witty, unassuming man who when the need arose didn’t hesitate to put himself forward as a medical pioneer.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006, Karl underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Several years later, his doctors told him it had returned, only this time it had spread to his lungs. They told him there was no effective treatment. But there was something else.
“One day the doctor said we have a new trial we’re going to start, would you be interested? I said “sure”. I don’t believe I knew at the time that I was going to be the first one, but I thought I’d give it a whirl.”
Karl was Patient #1 in a clinical trial at Stanford University that was using a novel approach to attack cancer stem cells, which have the ability to evade standard anti-cancer treatments and cause the tumors to regrow. The team identified a protein, called CD47, that sits on the surface of cancer stem cells and helps them evade being gobbled up and destroyed by the patient’s own immune system. They dubbed CD47 the “don’t eat me” signal and created an antibody therapy they hoped would block the signal, leaving the cancer and the cancer stem cells open to attack by the immune system.
The team did pre-clinical testing of the therapy, using mice to see if it was safe. Everything looked hopeful. Even so, this was still the first time it was being tested in a human. Karl said that didn’t bother him.
“It was an experience for me, it was eye opening. I wasn’t real concerned about being the first in a trial never tested in people before. I said we know that there’s no effective treatment for this cancer, it’s not likely but it’s possible that this could be the one and if nothing else, if it doesn’t do anything for me hopefully it does something so they learn for others.”
It’s that kind of selflessness that is typical of so many people who volunteer for clinical trials, particularly Phase 1 trials, where a treatment is often being tried in people for the first time ever. In these trials, the goal is to make sure the approach is safe, so patients are given a relatively small dose of the therapy (cells or drugs) and told ahead of time it may not do any good. They’re also told that there could be some side effects, potentially serious, even life-threatening ones. Still, they don’t hesitate.
Rosie Barrero certainly didn’t hesitate when she got a chance to be part of a clinical trial testing the use of stem cells to help people with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare progressive disease that destroys a person’s vision and ultimately leaves them blind.
“I was extremely excited about the clinical trial. I didn’t have any fear or trepidation about it, I would have been happy being #1, and I was #6 and that was fine with me.”
Rosie had what are called retinal progenitor cells injected into her eye, part of a treatment developed by Dr. Henry Klassen at the University of California, Irvine. The hope was that those cells would help repair and perhaps even replace the light-sensing cells damaged by the disease.
Following the stem cell treatment, gradually Rosie noticed a difference. It was small things at first, like being able to make out the colors of cups in her kitchen cupboard, or how many trash cans were outside their house.
“I didn’t expect to see so much, I thought it would be minor, and it is minor on paper but it is hard to describe the improvement. It’s visible, it’s visible improvement.”
These are the moments that researchers like Henry Klassen live for, and have worked so tirelessly for. These are the moments that everyone at CIRM dreams of, when the work we have championed, supported and funded shows it is working, shows it is changing people’s lives.
One year ago this month our governing Board approved a new Strategic Plan, a detailed roadmap of where we want to go in the coming years. The plan laid out some pretty ambitious goals, such as funding 50 new clinical trials in the next 5 years, and at our Board meeting next week we’ll report on how well we are doing in terms of hitting those targets.
People like Karl and Rosie help motivate us to keep trying, to keep working as hard as we can, to achieve those goals. And if ever we have a tough day, we just have to remind ourselves of what Rosie said when she realized she could once again see her children.
“Seeing their faces. It’s pretty incredible. I always saw them with my heart so I just adore them, but now I can see them with my eye.”