Aurora St. Luke’s conducts breakthrough cancer research

Aurora Health Care St. Luke’s Medical Center Vince Lombardi Cancer Clinic

Innovation: New Cancer treatment that uses combination of immunotherapy and chemotherapy to attack cancer cells

Patients diagnosed with melanoma can receive a new type of clinical treatment that has the potential to significantly increase their chances of recovery.

The clinical research trials are being conducted in only a few places throughout the world, including Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee.

“What we are doing here is world class,” said Dr. Jon Hanson, medical director of immunotherapy at Aurora Health Care. “We’re one of the first institutions in the world to offer this type of research treatment, and it was developed here in Milwaukee through gifts from the community.”

Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center Vince Lombardi Cancer Clinic developed its immunotherapy program nearly 20 years ago. The intent was to conduct research and offer customized treatments for cancer patients. The treatment has made a quantum leap in results over the past few years, Hanson said.

Only three other facilities in the world offer the same type of clinical trial, Hanson said.

They include Washington D.C., Tel HaShomer, Israel and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas.

“The treatment essentially trains a person’s immune system to attack the cancer cells,” Hanson said. “It’s pretty amazing technology.”

The technology has been applied to stage four melanoma because of several specific identifiers found within melanoma cells. In simple terms, the identifiers make it easier to train the body’s cancer fighting cells, Hanson said.

According to Hanson, when an individual is diagnosed with stage four melanoma, the tumor paralyzes the body’s normal ability to fight back.

“The tumor’s main objective is to prevent itself from dying,” Hanson said. “To do that the tumor destroys everything, destroys its host, in order to stay alive.”

The human body is equipped with immune cells that typically infiltrate the tumor to fight back against the cancer.

While traditional chemotherapy is designed to weaken the cancer’s ability to fight back so the body’s normal cells can effectively kill the cancer, the new clinical trial uses the patient’s immune cells that have already invaded the tumor and effectively makes more of them to help in the fight.

“Through a complicated process, the treatment takes the tumor infiltrating lymphocytes (the body’s natural immune cells that have invaded the tumor), removes them and multiplies them outside the body,” Hanson said.

The process of multiplying the cancer fighting cells takes about three months, Hanson said. Once the laboratory has grown a sufficient amount of cancer fighting cells, they must be placed back inside the patient.

Similar to blood transfusions, a body’s traditional reaction is to reject these cells, Hanson said.

“To re-introduce the cells to the patient’s body we combine the treatment with one or two sessions of traditional chemotherapy,” Hanson said. “The chemotherapy, in addition to attacking the cancer, also weakens the body’s immune system just enough for us to reintroduce the TIL (tumor infiltrating lymphocytes) cells we created into the patient’s bloodstream.”

The re-introduced cells have the ability to find and detect the melanoma and, because there are so many, have a better chance of defeating the cancer, Hanson said.

The technology is not being deemed a cure for cancer, Hanson said. But according to the trials, at least 1 out of every 6 patients treated will go into complete remission and most will at least lose half the cancer. Published reports for the trial indicate a 51 percent response rate, Hanson said.

“As the technology develops, we hope that this will become the standard for cancer treatment,” Hanson said. “The next step is determining how we can get the TIL cells to identify with other types of cancer breast, colon, lung, even prostate.”

According to Hanson, melanoma was chosen because it had several identifiers that red flagged it as melanoma. Other types of cancers don’t have the markers on the surface that lymphocytes can easily detect, he said.

“The cells don’t naturally see other types of cancer,” Hanson said. “We have the ability to attach one to the tumor and essentially program them to recognize particular markers but the markers need to be identified first. That’s where this research has the capability to go.”

The technology can double or even triple the response rate of any treatment currently on the market, Hanson said.

“We have the facility to do this, the people of Milwaukee have given us this gift and it’s about time we start beating our own drum a little,” he said.

Aurora St. Luke’s is the only community hospital in the world that has this type of facility, Hanson said.

“It puts the Milwaukee community at a unique advantage and at the forefront of tomorrow’s technology,” Hanson said. “It’s time we all start thinking about the well being of the patients, get behind this effort and move forward as a community.”

Hanson would like to position the lab as a community resource and also hopes to disperse some intra-hospital system rivalry in the community.

“This is a transformative time for health care in our country,” Hanson said. “What better reason do we need to work together on this initiative to help the city of Milwaukee rise?”

Hanson hopes to start conversations about forming a community-wide cellular network and biological institute to keep the advancement of research going in the Milwaukee community.

“These are absolutely discussions we need to start having, we need to pool our resources and begin leveraging this technology to help improve patient resources in our community, reduce health care costs and excel in areas of excellence,” Hanson said. “We already have a head start, the facility and the technology is here. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Hospital systems in this community just need to start working together to build up the community as a whole.”

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