As 2011 was drawing to a close, tests of a swollen lymph node at UAMS revealed Ken Wolfe’s stage IV melanoma, an often deadly form of skin cancer.
“As most people were sitting there thinking about New Year’s resolutions, my wife and I were worried, and crying and laughing, as well, about dealing with the diagnosis of melanoma,” said Wolfe, 58, of Jacksonville.
His cancer doctor at UAMS, Laura Hutchins, M.D., a hematologist-oncologist, told him about a research study (clinical trial) that was testing a new drug. Called Yervoy, it was a new type of cancer drug that works by triggering the body’s own immune system to fight tumors. Although he didn’t know which treatment he would get – the latest standard treatment or the Yervoy – he didn’t hesitate to volunteer for the study.
“There’s not much research that had been done on melanoma, and I wanted to help them find the best treatments for it,” he said.
In the clinical trial, a computer randomly picked which patients would receive the standard treatment (interferon alpha-2b, high dose) or the new drug, Yervoy.
“The computer decided I was going to get the interferon,” Wolfe said. “I was on it for about a year and was removed from the study when Dr. Hutchins saw that I was getting worse. She switched me to the Yervoy, because in the meantime that medication had been approved by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).”
Today, Wolfe is taking yet another new melanoma drug approved by the FDA in 2014 – the sixth melanoma treatment approved since 2011. The drug, Keytruda, is for treatment of patients with late-stage melanoma who are no longer responding to other drugs. It’s the first approved drug that blocks a cellular pathway that prevents the body’s immune system from attacking melanoma cells.
“Without clinical trials and people willing to participate, these medications probably would not be available,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said the drug seems to be working as intended.
“I had some lymph nodes in the back of my neck that had enlarged, and I can feel them shrinking,” he said. “That’s a great sign for me that it’s really working. And I feel good. Every day I wake up and feel better so that’s wonderful, and I thank God for that.”
Wolfe said the UAMS researchers and staff all were helpful. “They are just wonderful with all the explanations about their research, and it’s wonderful that UAMS takes part in some of the clinical trials they’re associated with,” he said.
“I learned that research is very important to helping understand treatment of diseases,” he added. “There are so many new opportunities out there that they are investigating for new medications, and every person is different, so it does help to have many people involved in a clinical trial to help clinicians understand what’s the best treatment and the right dosages for the medications.”