Dog in Tampa helped by cancer drug; people could be next

Image 1 of 4

It's a health initiative so big, it's being compared to the project that landed us on the moon - but this time, the goal is to defeat cancer.

After losing his son to brain cancer, Vice President Joe Biden is vowed a nationwide effort to fight the deadly disease, and Wednesday he held a summit at Howard University in Washington DC as a kick-off to the Moonshot initiative.  

In addition to the event, more than 270 participating sites had local gatherings, including Morphogenesis in Tampa.  

The bio-tech company makes Immune-fx, a personalized cancer-fighting injection. Even though the research has been almost 20 years in the making, it's still not approved for use in humans. Instead, it's being used in animals, like dogs and horses.

Paquita, a golden retriever, was present at the event. After being diagnosed with melanoma in her mouth, she underwent surgery. Her owner, Emily Holman said the tumor grew back, double its previous size. Veterinarians said to remove it, they'd have to remove her jaw. Instead, her owners chose to have her treated with radiation, alternating with the Morphogenesis' cancer vaccine.

The vaccine uses gene therapy to help the immune system kill cancer cells. It works by splicing a special gene into the DNA of tumor cells, turning them into visible targets for the immune system to attack. 

Holman says Paquita has had two shots so far. 

"It's worked great, you wouldn't even know that she's received any vaccines. She eats normal, she acts like a normal dog, no pain, nothing, no side effects," Holman said.

And while it's taken almost 20 years to get to this point, they still can't use the therapy in humans. 

"We get so many calls, we're just a little company just doing our thing, but we get people all the time that have cancer, that are looking for something new, something better, something different, and we have to turn them away," Dr. Lawman says.

Barbara Bagby understands those restrictions. The former Moffitt Cancer Center nurse is now battling end-stage ovarian cancer. Her tumors are now compressing her kidneys and major blood vessels.  

"At this point, they're about the size of a basketball, and they give me no hope as of last February - that I could chose to go in hospice," Barbara explained.

She hopes the Moonshot will succeed.

"I'm hoping it will help others, yes, that aren't as advanced as me," she explained.

As a summit host, Dr. Lawman will compile a list of suggestions gathered from attendees and on Facebook, to submit to the vice president. 

One recommendation will be to modify current policies for compassionate use of products not yet approved by the FDA. Some companies are reluctant to offer the drugs to patients like Barbara who have run out of options.

"If we accept a patient as a compassionate care, the way it stands now, that data has to be entering into the clinical trial data so most companies, even though there are avenues for compassionate care, they won't do it. It will skew their data, it will skew their chances for funding, it will skew their chances for actually regulatory approval of their commercial product," Dr. Lawman explained.

Her wish now is for more support for human clinical trials.