Experimental anti-cancer vaccine may improve odds
Each prick in the arm is a jab of hope for the 75-year-old Sultan man.
The experimental shots might prevent a recurrence of his lung cancer. Without the shots, the odds are about even the cancer will come back.
And with the shots?
That's what Jelinek and researchers want to find out.
He is in a lung cancer vaccine study at Everett's Providence Regional Cancer Partnership for patients with non-small cell lung cancer tumors having the protein PRAME.
The vaccine is an antigen-specific immunization treatment after surgery to cause the body to make antibodies to fight cancer cells that produce the menacing protein.
In simple terms, it's like a flu or allergy shot: Injecting the "poison" becomes the potion.
It's a boost for Jelinek.
"I feel more positive every time I get a shot," he said. "I am contributing to something that is on the edge of a breakthrough for a cure."
He wasn't optimistic when diagnosed in May 2011 with stage two lung cancer.
"It was devastating," Jelinek said. "I was like, 'This is the end of the world.' I'd already lost two friends with lung cancer."
Not only that, he had to face an uncertain future without the support of Genevieve, his wife of 48 years, who died in a car crash in 2007.
His cancer diagnosis came two weeks before he was to fly to Maryland for his granddaughter's graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy. Instead, he packed his slippers and drove to Providence in Everett.
Surgery on the upper lobe of his left lung successfully removed the malignancy, with a 40 percent to 50 percent chance of recurrence within two years.
Jelinek's test results have been negative since starting the vaccine series last summer. The 13-shot regimen takes 27 months to complete.
He is the only patient in the initial phase at Providence to determine dosage. Participants in the second phase that starts later this year won't know if they're getting an injection of a placebo or the real thing. Neither will the docs.
Jelinek's doctor, Kimberly Costas, medical director of thoracic surgery, said all patients enrolled in studies receive the same followup tests and labs. Evidence shows that even participants who get placebos fare better than those not in clinical trials.
"Patients in trials are observed so much more closely. You may get a placebo and it might be of benefit," she said.
The PRAME protein is expressed in about 75 percent of lung cancer tumors, Costas said. She expects the next phase of the PRAME study to enroll more patients than a similar trial launched in 2010 for a lung cancer vaccine targeting the less common MAGE-A3 protein.
Nine Providence patients, ages 57 to 81, participated in the MAGE-A3 trial involving more than 2,200 patients at about 400 sites worldwide.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in Snohomish County, despite being the third most diagnosed cancer. More residents died of lung cancer than from the next three most lethal cancers combined.
Costas said the Providence clinic saw 275 new lung cancer patients last year. There were about 220,000 new cases nationwide.
The vaccine doesn't prevent new cases. It is a post-op treatment only. "Another tool against lung cancer, where in the past we've had no options," Costas said.
"It is really exciting. We haven't made much progress for chemotherapy. When we find patients with stage two and three lung cancers, chemotherapy improves survival only between 5 and 10 percent for five years."
Even then, elderly patients often have other issues that rule out chemotherapy, she said. But most can tolerate the shots.
Jelinek has no complaints. Every three months, he heads to Providence for the shot. He rolls up his sleeve, arm at the ready for the needle that penetrates his muscle. He waits 30 minutes after the shot in case of a reaction.
"They put on a little Band-Aid and I'm outta there," he said.
His arm is a bit sore a few hours later. The next day, he sometimes feels sluggish, then bounces back.
"I feel great," he said. "I'm as active as I can be. I recently started dating a young lady."
Jelinek, a nonsmoker, believes exposure to Agent Orange is the cause of his cancer. His crew flew 102 recon missions over Vietnam in 1969-70. He served 20 years in the Air Force.
Costas was inspired by a different side of war. "I'd watch the program 'M*A*S*H' with my dad," she said. "I thought I could be Hawkeye Pierce. I always wanted to be a doctor."
She chose to specialize in surgery, she said, because of "the impact on patient care. I like taking care of patients and giving them hope in a meaningful way."
One lung cancer patient sported his gratitude by getting a tattoo reading "Thank you Dr. Costas."
Jelinek won't go that far. Besides, he calls her "Kim."
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