A Great Day at the Georgia Cancer Center

June 14th, 2016 by Tara Simkins

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending the day at the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University, touring the research labs and clinical trials units, and listening to updates from Drs. Ted Johnson and David Munn regarding the Phase I relapsed brain tumor immunotherapy trial using the drug indoximod, the arms of this trial, and the plans to expand and open similar Phase I trials in connection with neuroblastoma and solid tumors and acute myeloid leukemia or AML.

I was quite impressed with how far along they are in this research and the results they are having.

This is the first-ever pediatric Phase I trial at the Georgia Cancer Center. I can’t underscore the importance of that more. Drs. Munn and Johnson are unique in that they are both pediatricians (they completed fellowships at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, respectively) who have developed drug agents for adult cancers with an eye for using them in children. This trial focuses on an agent patented at the Medical College of Georgia in 1998.  While it took almost 18 years to translate this finding into a pediatric clinical trial (the adult trial opened within two years), they anticipate closing that gap with what they are working on today to two years and ultimately one year.

The trial accepted its first patient in December 2015 and has enrolled nine patients from across the U.S. since then. Two have had to drop out because of progression of disease, but seven remain active and are seeing good results.

The day was organized around a visit from Melissa Wiggins of Cannonball Kicks Cancer.  Melissa’s son, Cannon, was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma.  He is two-plus years NED (no evidence of disease) and is currently part of Dr. Giselle Sholler’s DFMO drug study for non-relapsed neuroblastoma patients at Michigan’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. (Dr. Sholler’s work sounds promising, without a single case of relapsed neuroblastoma in over four years with kids on this study.  She is opening a new arm, which Cannonball is going to help fund, and Press On will also be speaking with her to find out more.)

Melissa was in Augusta to meet with Drs. Munn and Johnson too and to meet Colter, the first child on the study. Colter is from Texas, and his family has been at this a long time, traveling to at least five hospitals across the country.  When he first came to the Georgia Cancer Center, he couldn’t sit up on his own or speak.  He is now walking and talking—just like any active 8-year-old kid..

She was also here to present a check for $30,000 to fund the Emmi Grace Applesauce Study for Dr. Johnson’s current trial. He has had to turn away at least seven children since opening the study because they are too young to swallow the large pills (Because the drug has not been approved by the FDA yet, they are not allowed to open the capsule.) This gift, inspired by the loss of Melissa’s dear friend’s five-month-old daughter Emmi Grace to cancer over the weekend, will be used to apply to the FDA for a specific study on the efficacy of the drug administered via applesauce.

Let’s just say Melissa is a fireball.  She is a non-practicing lawyer, and her husband, Michael, is a defense attorney in Orlando, who represents Michelin.  She has done her research and in 18 months of starting Cannonball has raised and funded $150,000 in pediatric cancer research. Cannonball, along with Alex’s Lemonade Stand and Press On, have also funded Dr. Johnson’s Phase I study.

I am excited to have spent so much time with Melissa and Drs. Johnson and Munn yesterday. My takeaways from the day include:

  1.  The pediatric immunotherapy program at the Georgia Cancer Center is on the front line of pediatric immunotherapy and has some very exciting prospects.  I had no idea how close Drs. Munn and Johnson are to expanding this work.
  1.  The program is small, focused and nimble.  While working within the Children’s Oncology Group, Dr. Johnson is focused on developing a network/consortium of pediatric cancer centers outside of the COG. He is in discussions with Dr. Sholler about opening an arm of her neuroblastoma DFMO study at the Georgia Cancer Center. He sees this as a great opportunity for the cancer center and what ultimately will be the Press On Pediatric Translational Research Program.
  1.  Dr. Johnson serves as the head of the search committee for the Press On Pediatric Translational Research Program position. I was reassured by his on-the-ground update regarding the search for this recruit. I have been advised that they had earnestly focused on one specific recruit over the last seven months who just recently decided against coming here. In any event, the search has been renewed, and they are actively searching for new candidates again who will come in and develop this translational program. Dr. Johnson reminded me that building a program like this is about the art of patience. They want to get the best person, not just a warm body.  I told him Press On agrees with that approach.  He also shared how essential this gift is to attracting that right person and that they would not be in a position to look for this person without it. He believes that the support of Press On will be responsible for creating one of the top pediatric immunotherapy programs in the country, which will build on the science that has been in the works at the Medical College of Georgia under Dr. Munn for the past 30 years.
  1.  Finally, I am thrilled about this new relationship with Melissa, Michael and Cannonball.  They are lobbying in D.C., researching cutting-edge options and pouring everything they’ve got into this shared mission. I think we have a great deal to offer one another.

 

I know there is much more to come, but for now, XOXO + Press on.

 

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