Author: Mary Hynes, Las Vegas Review-Journal
In February, a cancerous tumor caused extreme swelling in Ruben Solis’ neck and face, blocking his airway. After an emergency tracheotomy, an incision to his windpipe that allowed him to breathe, Solis had to decide whether he wanted to enter a clinical trial to receive an experimental treatment.
The 54-year-old Henderson resident was skeptical. But with stage 4 laryngeal cancer that had spread to his lungs, he was running out of options. Three months later, after three treatments, the tumors in his throat and lungs have dramatically shrunk and the swelling subsided.
“I feel much better,” Solis said Monday.
The father and grandfather, who worked in banquets and as a food and beverage manager on the Strip before falling ill, is the first person in the world to receive a combination of two experimental drugs, Enoblituzumab and Retifanlimab, as part of a new clinical trial for head and neck cancer, according to Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, the local site participating in the global study.
Solis and his oncologist, Dr. Anthony Nguyen, spoke with reporters prior to the patient receiving his fourth infusion of the two drugs. The treatment is a new form of immunotherapy, which boosts the body’s immune system to combat the cancer.
“So his immune system is actually being manipulated, turned on, to actually fight the cancer from inside,” Nguyen said.
In this way it is different from traditional chemotherapy.
“When we think of chemotherapy and cancer medicine, we think of dropping bombs on the cancer, and the bombs will kill the cancer, but they also will hurt the surrounding tissue in the person as well,” Nguyen said. “So we’re trying to move away from traditional chemotherapy and customize it to provide something that’s a lot easier” for patients to tolerate.
The combination of drugs was customized to fit the unique molecular profile of Solis’ tumor.
The tumor in Solis’ throat grew to about an inch and a half in diameter, causing severe swelling of the neck and face, the oncologist said. A Comprehensive Cancer Centers publicist wrote to reporters that the mass grew to the size of “a football,” though Nguyen said the swelling gave the patient’s head and neck the appearance of a watermelon.
Solis, who was diagnosed with cancer in December 2019, was at first treated with more standard radiation and chemotherapy. The cancer went into remission, only to return and to spread.
The sponsor of the trial is biopharmaceutical company MacroGenics, based in Rockville, Maryland. The trial, with about 80 participants, will take place in 35 centers in the U.S., Australia and Europe.
Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada is involved in about 170 clinical trials, 86 of which are in the active phase; in the remainder, the patients continue to be evaluated after the completion of the treatment phase. Medications in the trials are provided free.
Through such trials in Southern Nevada, “We’re crushing that notion that one has to travel far to get cutting edge, new medicines that are not FDA approved or not available,” Nguyen said.