In 1995, the Arenson family came to the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute with the first donation collected at the first "Hoops for Cure" to establish the Nathan S. Arenson Fund. We had just initiated the first-in-the-world clinical trial of a therapeutic vaccine for pancreatic cancer. This vaccine was derived from a molecule that we discovered in 1989 and showed to be abnormally expressed by pancreatic tumor cells compared to healthy pancreatic tissue. Our previous work had shown that in preclinical animal models this abnormal expression could lead to the recognition and destruction of cancer by the immune system. We hoped that this vaccine would elicit similar immunity in patients allowing them to take control of their tumors.
Because this molecule was made by our own bodies and not by a virus or a bacterium, there was a considerable concern on the part of the FDA that if we were successful in immunizing the patients, and if this resulted in tumor destruction, eventually this same immunity might begin destroying normal tissues, such as is the case in many autoimmune diseases. For that reason, we received permission to vaccinate only very late stage patients who would not benefit from it but could help us determine the safety of this protocol. Even though this was clearly stated to the patients, 63 of them volunteered to be vaccinated. Their generosity was rewarded only by future permission we received from the FDA to use this vaccine in patients who might benefit from it.
The Arenson Fund helped us design, plan and initiate 10 more clinical trials over the years, each new trial based on the new knowledge our research yielded. In each case, we used the money that was raised each year to start the trials as soon as the FDA granted us permissions, without having to wait until our applications for funding to the National Cancer Institute got funded. We didn't have to wait, the patients didn't have to wait and the progress didn't have to wait. We always knew that new donations from "Hoops for Cure" would come in to keep the trials open and our research going.
Not only did the Arenson Fund help us run innovative clinical trials, it also paid for treatments of individual pancreatic cancer patients who for various reasons did not fully qualify for the trial but had run out of other therapeutic options. Even though the permission could be obtained easily from the FDA to provide these patients experimental treatments, their insurance did not cover it, the government grants did not cover it and they were not permitted to pay for it themselves. The Arenson Fund has been the only chance for a number of these individuals.
Each one of our clinical trials was a study meant to provide information towards the design of new therapies. We have done that and moved the field very far forward. Our colleagues refer to us as "Pioneers in Cancer Immunotherapy." We are also unique in having focused on pancreatic cancer very early, before it was on the radar of other scientists and funding agencies. By having supported our work so early, you have helped us influence the field and make pancreatic cancer important to scientists, funders and legislators.
With your help, we have helped a lot people. By inducing immunity in a subset of patients, we have achieved the stabilization of a fast progressing disease, an increase in progression-free survival and overall survival. We have seen some amazing cures. In one of our small trials, we vaccinated 12 patients and 5 of them were cured at 5 years. Our successes grew as we showed that the vaccine was safe and could receive permission to test in patients with early disease and those whose primary tumors were removed. There we saw the most benefit.
Our work has been published and is well known. This is as much as we can accomplish as university scientists. We hope that our results encourage companies to develop pancreatic cancer vaccines as drugs. Those decisions are based on many business considerations in addition to good science. For our part, we will keep providing new information. Our focus currently is on using vaccines to prevent pancreatic cancer. Other scientific advances have made it easier to diagnose early disease and people at high risks for this disease. We believe that this provides a great opportunity to vaccinate otherwise healthy individuals and reduce their risk for getting pancreatic cancer. We are real pioneers in developing vaccines for cancer prevention. We would never have been able to get to this point without your support on this 20-year long journey with a very important goal – WIPE OUT PANCREATIC CANCER.