Ray Hernandez faced a life-and-death decision early this year after routine blood tests showed he was losing his battle with prostate cancer.
His wife persuaded Hernandez to enroll in a new treatment that researchers hope will lead to the development of a vaccine for prostate cancer, and possibly other types of cancer.
“I’m doing this for my wife,” Hernandez, 75, said of his decision to enroll in a clinical trial at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center.
“She wants me to hang around as long as I can,” he said. “I’m hanging around for her.”
Hernandez was the first New Mexican to enroll in a clinical study for a treatment that surprised researchers by behaving like a vaccine, training the body’s immune system to recognize and fight prostate cancer cells.
“Originally it was a targeted therapy, and it turned out to be more like a vaccine,” said Dr. Tom Schroeder, a radiologist at UNM Cancer Center overseeing the phase III clinical trial. Vaccines stimulate the body’s immune system to fight disease. Existing vaccines target viral and bacterial illnesses, but the search for a cancer vaccine “is kind of the holy grail of cancer therapy” that has long eluded researchers, he said.
If the ongoing study shows that the technique prompts the immune system to fight cancer “then it may be effective in much more than prostate cancer,” Schroeder said. “This could be an effective treatment for a variety of different cancers.”
Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, some 207,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S., and about 28,000 men die of the disease.
Hernandez was eligible for the study because lab tests show he has intermediate- to high-risk cancer that has not yet spread beyond the prostate. He is one of five New Mexicans enrolled in the clinical trial, which is ongoing at 13 sites in the U.S. The study is expected to continue at least four years.
The therapy involves a variety of innovative techniques, such as injecting a genetically altered virus into the prostate.
The “neutered” virus, so called because it lacks the ability to reproduce, contains a gene that finds its way into the DNA of the cancer cell.
The gene, combined with a drug that patients take in pill form, blocks the DNA’s ability to replicate, preventing cancer cells from reproducing, Schroeder said.
What makes the treatment behave like a vaccine remains somewhat mysterious, Schroeder said. But the presence of a virus within the cancer cell appears to alert the body’s immune system and prompt it to attack the cell.
The clinical study combines the treatment with radiation therapy. Radiation damages DNA, and the cell’s attempts to repair the damage accelerates the effects of the therapy, Schroeder said.
Hernandez, who completed the last of 39 rounds of radiation therapy last week, doesn’t sugar-coat the painful process he chose when he entered the clinical trial earlier this year.
“The treatments knock you out real quick,” Hernandez said of the radiation therapy he has undergone over the past two months.
Now that his treatment has ended, Hernandez will take a series of blood tests in coming months and years to determine whether the treatment succeeded in slowing or halting the cancer.
Exhaustion has kept him from pursuing his passion for karate and other day-to-day activities. “I’m way behind on the honey-dos for the house,” he said.
He also received three rounds of painful injections to his prostate required to put the therapeutic genes into the cancer cells.
Beyond prodding from his wife, Hernandez said he is motivated by a desire to help other men diagnosed with a dangerous form of prostate cancer.