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Local Mom Happy As Experimental Cancer Vaccine Treatment Ends

By Stuart Boslow, CBS 11 News
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A researcher extracts fluid from a vial at a lab. (credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

A researcher extracts fluid from a vial at a lab. (credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

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NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) – Nearly nine months ago, CBS 11 News began following a North Texas cancer patient as she started a new Dallas-based clinical trial for an experimental vaccine. The therapy has virtually no side effects and is made from a patient’s own tumor.

You’ll see first-hand how the vaccine works, and meet the Frisco mother whose life has been changed because of it.

It was an exciting moment for doctors and nurses at the Mary Crowley Cancer Research Center, and for cancer patient Tonya Hughes. Hughes received her sixth and final dose of an experimental vaccine specifically designed to battle her cancer. “I’m very happy,” she said. “I feel like the ‘old Tonya’.”

We first met Tonya in October 2010, a month after she was diagnosed with Stage IV liver cancer that had spread to her lungs. At the time, she was given just one year to live. “I have a baby,” Hughes said in October. “I can’t have cancer. I have a baby.”

Hughes’s only wish was to live long enough to see her then two-year old son go to kindergarten. “I just want to see him get on the school bus and wave goodbye Mommy.”

When her doctor said they were out of treatment options, Hughes began looking for something else. That’s when she found a clinical trial for a new cancer vaccine at Mary Crowley. “This has got to work,” Hughes said before undergoing the treatment. “I’m putting my trust in Mary Crowley now, but this has got to work.”

The vaccine is made up of cancer cells from actual tumors taken directly from Hughes’s lungs during surgery last November. Within hours of the surgery, the tumors are rushed to a lab in Carrollton where they are broken down into individual cancer cells. The cells are then put into a machine that superheats and shocks them – a process that changes their genetic makeup.

“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,” explained Dr. Neil Senzer who is one of the lead researchers on the trial, which is now in phase two.

According to Senzer, by changing the genes within the cancer cells and re-injecting them into Hughes’s body, her immune system can now recognize the diseased cells and fight them.

Another lead researcher on the study, Dr. John Nemunaitis, says their purpose is clear. “That’s why we’re doing this, to help people, to help patients, and to do the right thing.”

In February, after Hughes’s first two doses, Dr. Nemunaitis reported that the vaccine was working. “It looks like the cancer stopped growing, it’s official called stable disease,” he said.

At first, Hughes didn’t want to be excited by the results, but four months and four doses later the vaccine continued to do its job. “As time went on, and every CT results came back better and better, then it was like okay, you can get a little happy now.”

And, happiness now means the wish of seeing her son off to kindergarten could soon become a reality. “I will be there putting him on the bus and watching him go to school,” the Frisco mother said optimistically. “I have peace of mind. I feel like this chapter is about to end in my life.”

Hughes’s doctors say now that she’s completed the vaccine regimen, she’ll be monitored closely with scans every three months to see if her cancer progresses again. But, she says should the cancer grow, she now has the confidence that she’ll be able to fight it back again.

For more information about the vaccine and other trials being done at the Mary Crowley Cancer Research Center, please call (972) 566-3086.

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