July 16, 2008

Las Vegan First to Try Cancer Drug

By Annette Wells



Randy Irwin is the ultimate guinea pig.

He's the first to try out an experimental treatment by New Jersey- based Medarex for kidney cancer to determine whether it works and to observe possible side effects.

Hopes were that his tumor would shrink or disappear - or at the very least remain in check - because of the treatment.

But earlier this month the 50-year-old Las Vegas resident learned that, after three treatments in six weeks, his tumor had progressed.

While this drug trial will continue at the Nevada Cancer Institute, Irwin and his physicians will go back to the drawing board and search for something else - which is what they've been doing for nearly three years.

"The volunteer doesn't always see the benefits right away, but it really does make a difference," said Irwin, who likens subjecting his body to clinical trials to volunteering. "I see this as a great opportunity to give back to future generations."

The drug Irwin tested is composed of a human monoclonal antibody that researchers believe, once introduced into the system, will bind to a recently discovered protein found on kidney cancer cells known as CD70.

Once the bond between the antibody and protein occurs, the theory is the body's immune system will react and eventually destroy the cancer cells. So far, this theory has only been proved in animal research.

Dr. Wolfram Samlowski, chief of the melanoma, renal cancer and immunotherapy section at the Nevada Cancer Institute, said that if the drug can destroy kidney cancer cells in humans, then it could be considered a treatment and quite possibly a cure.

The Nevada Cancer Institute, or NVCI, is one of three sites in the nation Medarex chose to conduct the Phase I clinical trial, a spokeswoman for the pharmaceutical company said.

New York-based Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Portland Providence Medical Center in Oregon are the other sites.

NVCI was selected because it has a history with the pharmaceutical company, Samlowski said. Also, the cancer institute is capable of conducting Phase I clinical trials.

The research institute has 88 clinical trials open; seven are with treatments that have never been used in humans.

"We are playing with the big boys," Samlowski said about NVCI's clinical trials. "In prior decades people needed to go out of state to test out the newer drugs."

According to NVCI, 13.5 percent of its patients have enrolled in the clinical trials program. On the national level, the percent of adult patients participating in clinical trials is said to be about 3 percent.

Irwin, who was initially diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in 2005 while living in Louisville, Ky., has undergone several clinical trials. Initially, his right kidney was removed to prevent further spread of the disease.

Though removal of Irwin's right kidney was deemed successful at the time, he was diagnosed with the disease again after moving to Las Vegas in 2006. For the past two years, Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang, director of NVCI, has monitored the cancer.

The cancer eventually began to grow and Irwin was introduced to the Medarex treatment.

"This disease is more relentless than aggressive," Samlowski said.

Renal cell carcinoma is the most common form of kidney cancer in adults, according to the American Cancer Society. Though it can be inherited, the disease can be the result of obesity, a history of smoking and pain medication misuse.

Although some patients some might drop their head to news their cancer is growing and nothing seems to be working to stop it, Irwin lifts his up. To him, there's a drug out there that can do the job.

And members of the Boy Scout troop whom he works with as LDS Willows Ward Young Men's president seem to respect this attitude.

"I think it's really cool that he's participating in studies (clinical trials). If it works, it helps a lot of people," said Damyn Chipman, a 13-year-old member of Boy Scout Troop 423.

Irwin, who is married with four children, is the troop's team leader.

He also volunteers for his church - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - helping to reach out to youth.

"Brother Irwin is always working and helping us out," Damyn said about Irwin's volunteer work. "He's fun. He's always coming up with activities for us to do. It's just really cool what he's doing."

Contact reporter Annette Wells at [email protected] or 702- 383-0283.

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