DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Treatment of cancer often involves weeks of grueling chemotherapy and radiation. But, an experimental new treatment could change all that.
It’s a simple shot in the arm like the flu vaccine. Scientists in Dallas working on it are already seeing incredible results. CBS11 was given exclusive access to see the science in action as we follow one patient’s journey to beat the disease.
What seems like a simple injection – a new type of vaccine – could save Tonya Hughes’ life, and provide a breakthrough in her fight against cancer.
“You always hear about celebrities going over to another country and getting treatments done, but to find out that this is being done in Dallas in phenomenal,” Hughes said.
The 41-year old Frisco mother’s battle with cancer began more than three years ago during a time when most people are excited about life. In 2008, she was pregnant with her first child, but the pregnancy was anything but pleasant. Tonya was constantly sick.
“One day, [the doctor] said why don’t you tally how many times you’re vomiting, and I did, and it was 18 times in one day,” she said.
Her doctor soon discovered why.
“He did an ultrasound of my gallblader, and right above it is the liver, and there was hanging a tumor off the right lobe of the liver,” Hughes recalled.
Doctors told her the tumor was benign, and Tonya carried her son to term. Eight months after he was born, the mass was finally removed. But, with that came devastating news.
“I’m sitting there just like what are you saying, I have cancer now, and he’s like yeah,” she remembered.
The tumor had changed since its initial discovery, and Tonya – a new mother – now faced months of chemotherapy and radiation… precious time spent away from her newborn son.
“I hate that the school was the first one to see him walk because I was in the hospital when he was walking,” she said.
Her treatments ended in April of 2010, but six months later the cancer came back. This time, doctors found five tumors embedded in her lungs. THis time, there would be no treatment. Her doctors were out of options.
“No one gave me any promises,” she said. “Everybody else just says to me ‘Good Luck’.”
Miles away from where Tonya’s world was crashing down, Dallas businessman David Shanahan and the team at the Mary Crowley Cancer Research Center were already working on something that might save her life.
“We want to give hope to all these patients,” Shanahan said. “My belief is what these patients need today are not technologies developed in the 70s or the 80s. They need access to what was developed last year.”
Shanahan is the grandson of Mary Crowley, a prominent Dallas businesswoman who died from cancer in the late 1980s.
“She had just a tremendous sense of spirit and inspiration,” he remembered about his grandmother. “She used to instill us with phrases like ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me.’.”
It’s that mantra that drives him to push for funding and bring scientists from all over the world together to develop new, cutting-edge therapies right here in Dallas.
“In the same way that airbags changed automobile fatalities, I’d like to have some series of events that occur that takes cancer and makes it just like high blood pressure,” he said.
Their idea sounds like something out of science fiction: cancerous tumors are taken out of the patient’s body and then used to manufacture a vaccine for that specific cancer. The re-designed tumor cells are then re-injected into the patient’s body.
“What we’re trying to do is dismantle the stealth system that the cancer cell has, so the immune radar system which we’ve now revved up not only can see it, but can produce ways to attack those cancer cells more effectively,” said Dr. Neil Senzer, principal researcher of this vaccine.
Dr. Senzer along with Dr. John Nemunaitis are part of the team working on this new therapeutic vaccine that they say could work on a number of different cancers.
“We’re now able to look at the differences between normal cells and cancer cells and try to target our therapy to the differences,” Dr. Senzer explained.
Tonya learned about this research, and is now enrolled in the clinical trial for this vaccine. She’s already received two doses, and prays every day for hope. But, above all else, she prays for time.
“I just want see my little boy go to kindergarten,” she said. “I just want to see him get on the school bus and wave, goodbye mommy.”
CBS11 has been following Tonya Hughes through this entire process over the last five months from the surgery to remove her tumors, to the lab where her tumors were turned into her vaccine.
- MORE: Gradalis Inc.