Cancer Vaccine Being Tested In Dallas

By Stuart Boslow, CBS 11 News

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – For cancer patients, the treatment sometimes seems worse than the disease.  But, Dallas-based scientists have developed a new therapy with virtually no side effects, that may even help patients who are running out of time.  They’re making this medicine from a cancerous tumor.  A 41-year old mother from Frisco is praying it will work for her.

“I’m tired of curing cancer in mice,” said Dr. John Nemunaitis.  “Let’s get it into people.”

Dr. Nemunaitis is leading a team of doctors and researchers who have developed a new vaccine made from a patient’s own tumor.

“The specificity we’re able to get to in terms of what makes cancer work and how to block that is remarkable,” he said.

“I said it sounds like a flu shot,” Hughes said remembering her first conversation about the vaccine.  “He said that’s exactly how I want you to think about it.”

Tonya Hughes has advanced stage liver cancer that has spread to her lungs.  She enrolled in the clinical trial through the Mary Crowley Cancer Research Center after her doctors told her they were out of options.

“I never question God like ‘why me?’,” she said.  “I just question God like what’s to come from this testimony. I don’t want it to be my death, but maybe I want it to be me helping somebody else.”

Hughes has allowed our cameras to follow her through this entire process which started last November in surgery when doctors removed four of the five tumors inside her lungs.

From the operating room, the tumors are taken to the lab in Carrollton where technicians immediately begin breaking them down into individual cancer cells.  The next day, Tonya’s cells are put into a machine where they’re super heated and shocked – a process that changes their genetic make-up.

“We’re now able to look at the differences between normal cells and cancer cells and try to target our therapy to the differences,” said Dr. Neil Senzer, one of the lead scientists on this study.

Dr. Senzer identified a series of proteins within every cancer cell that helps them hide from the body’s immune system.  He discovered that by changing the genes within these cancer cells to block those proteins, when injected back into Tonya as a vaccine, the immune system begins to recognize the diseased cells and fights them all over the 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. Senzer.

David Shanahan, a Dallas businessman, had a personal reason for founding the Gradalis biomedical lab where this research is taking place.  He’s the grandson of the late Mary Crowley, a prominent businesswoman who died from cancer in the late 1980s.

“She had just a tremendous sense of spirit and inspiration. She used to instill us with phrases like ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me.’,” Shanahan said.

It’s that mantra that drives him to push for funding, and bring scientists from all over the world together to develop these new, cutting edge therapies right here in Dallas.  He hopes this research will help turn cancer into a much more manageable disease.

“I think it’s really quite possible,” he said.  “Five years from now, I think we’ll have big chunks of cancer moved off the table and are now managed in an elegant way.”

Tonya received her first dose of the vaccine right before Christmas, and gets a new dose each month through May.  Monday afternoon, we learned the vaccine seems to be working, and it has stopped the disease in its tracks.

“It looks like the cancer stopped growing, it’s official called stable disease,” Dr. Nemunaitis said.  “Now we’ve got to wait and watch and hope that her immune system continues to build to eventually hopefully demonstrate some shrinkage.”

For Tonya, it means more time as a healthy mom to spend with her son.

“I need more than two years,” she said. “My little boy is just two. I need more than 2 years.”

Tonya says she feels great and has no side effects from this treatment.  She goes in for next dose of the vaccine on Wednesday.  We’ll continue to follow her progress through the course of this treatment.

The trial for this vaccine is now in phase two, and researchers are now looking for Ovarian Cancer patients to enroll.  To learn more information about this and other studies at the Mary Crowley Cancer Research Center, you can call 972-566-3086, or click here to visit their website.


One Comment

  1. Mj Mccarthy Lloyd says:

    Amazing!! Keep me posted!!

  2. Richard W. says:

    I just saw the segment regarding the trial cancer vaccine. How can one find out more about the vaccine and possibly being involved in the trial? Please help!!!

    1. Stuart says:

      Richard, please contact the Mary Crowley Cancer Research Center at the phone number listed above. They’ll be able to answer your questions.

    2. Richard W says:

      Just saw the number above. Thank you.

    3. DRS says:

      I am also part of this trial. Contact The Mary Crowley cancer center at the number in the article.

  3. Drew Proctor says:

    It sure seems like an impressive advancement in Cancer research-

  4. KG says:

    This is exciting!!

  5. Carla McNabb says:

    Am very excited atout this study. Have advanced cancer so it offers hope.

  6. TONYA HUGHES says:


    1. Lorece White says:

      PRAISE GOD!! It’s sooo good to see them making strived in cancer research. Blessed is the man whose HOPE the Lord is!!!! DREAMS DO COME TRUE!! 🙂

    2. Faheem "Arkansas Red" Munir says:

      Good Tonya

    3. Jill Allen says:

      Tonya: My husband (30 yrs old) participated in the phase I version of this trial from May 2008-April 2009. As you probably know, the size of your tumor correlates with how much vaccine the lab is able to produce (at least that was the situation back in 2008…I know they can sometimes grow tumors from your own cancer cells on mice until they have a large enough tumor to create a steady supply of the vaccine). In David’s case, his tumor was approx the size of a baseball which the lab transformed into a 12 doses of the vaccine. Unfortunately, David’s cancer became detectable via CT approx 3/4 through the trial. We knew it was only a matter of time before the cancer returned…we had been told as much by numerous Drs. However, I still feel encouraged by this technology & honored that we were a part of such ground-breaking cancer care. David was the second person to begin the phase I study and it felt as if we were paving the way for others, like yourself, who would be in search of hope & possibilities. We have a 4yr old daughter who was just one when David was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. While I’m not the one with cancer, I completely understand everything you said about wanting to see your boy get on the school bus when he’s five. My biggest hopes & my daily ambitions are driven by our daughter & the NEED to see her and David to make more memories. My prayers are with you, Tonya, and I’m so glad you’re able to participate in what I believe is the future of cancer. It only makes sense: immuno-therapy treatments for cancer by taking your cancer cells & turning them into super-cells designed to attack any remaining cancer within the body. If you’d ever like to get in touch since we’ve been through the trial your on now, or would like support as a young mother with a young child, please email me @ Again, many blessings & prayers for your journey.

  7. Janet Sanders says:

    This is great news.

  8. Karrie Riffe says:

    I have stage 3b breast cancer,and would like to stay away from chemo but know that wont probley happen. After mastectomy due I need to consider saving tumors for your reasearch and incase I have futher problems? Also have been told radeation is nessary after mastectomy. Please let me know you thoughts. I have always used herbs and truly have looked into everything o prevent chemo,seems theres no way around it. This is wonderfull news and God bless Toyna ,sounds like your in good hands.

    1. Jill says:

      Absolutely you need to have you tumor (as much of it as possible) saved by the lab, presuming you become a patient with the Mary Crowley Center. My husband participated in the 1st phase of this trial from May 2008-April 2009. He had major surgery in Jan 2008 to remove a baseball sized pancreatic tumor. The Mary Crowley center (actually, Dr. John Nemunaitis) took David’s tumor straight to the lab to begin the process of creating David’s custom vaccine. The size of your tumor may depend on how many months of vaccine can be created. For example, due to the large nature of David’s tumor, the MC lab was able to create a 12 month supply of vaccine for David. And I also want to emphasize that even though David’s cancer became detectable again approx 3/4’s into the trial, and it has now worsened & spread to his liver, I still believe in this technology & I still believe that the vaccine may have slowed down the cancer from returning quicker than it did. I urge you to contact the MC research center for a consult. We, too, have tried at all costs to stay away from chemo & radiation. Best of luck with your journey.

  9. Susan Medler says:

    aon April 5, 2010 I had a lobectomy–half of my left lung. The cancers were stage one and I had no Lymph node involvement. I opted not to have chemo and am trusting my body and healthy eating exercise and good sleep to keep my immune system strong. My pet scan was clear in October. I have another scan scheduled for March 29th. I’m worried that all the radiation that I’m getting may cause cancer.
    Thank you for this report.

  10. bLAKE says:


  11. Maxine Chambers says:

    My husband has stage 4 melanoma cancer. It was NOTstarted by skin melamona. It has been a on going thing . He took radiation but it did not help. We have not had chemo and do not want to, it would be our last choice. He had a full PET scan in Oct. 2010. The another one Jan. 2011. This one showed progression of the dsease. We would like to be a part of this study. Please e-mail back as soon as you can.


    1. Jill Allen says:

      Maxine–you need to be the ones to contact the research center. The contact info is listed above. I doubt the clinic is following these comments. My husband participated in this study back in May 2008-April 2009. Best of luck. Please call them to see if he qualifies.

  12. Karlissa says:

    I am a 35 yr old single mom to my 8 yr old son Hunter. My hubby and sons father passed of ashema in june,07.A lil over a yr later i was diagosed stage 4 ovarian cancer. I would love to be in a clinical trial.Thanks,Karlissa in Hurst,Tx.

  13. Delphia says:

    This is wonderful. I am praying for my sister-in-law and all others in the trials.

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