Experimental drug offers hope for advanced skin cancer patients

Clinical trials at SA START Center show promise; drug heads to FDA for approval

SAN ANTONIO – As a surgeon, Dr. David Crouch has seen his share of cancer cases. 

But there's one case that's personal.

"I was sitting at my computer one night and I reached around and there was a bump," Crouch said. 

The bump on his neck was the first of several recurrences of squamous cell carcinoma.  

Surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy followed, but the aggressive form of skin cancer would return.  

"When it recurred, after all the treatment and all the radiation, they said conventional treatments are not going to get it," Crouch, 83, said. "We were making funeral arrangements."

But everything changed when Crouch's doctor at the START Center said there was a drug that might help.

"I said, 'When are we starting?'" Crouch said. 

The experimental drug is called cemiplimab.

"It is a type of immune therapy, which is to say the drug enhances the body's immune system's ability to actually kill the cancer," said Dr. Drew Rasco, clinical investigator at START, the first site to test the drug in patients.

Within a few months, Rasco said they began to see the potential the drug could have on squamous cell cancers.

Images of another patient involved in the clinical trials showed visibly dramatic results. The patient's head was covered in large walnut-sized tumors. After six weeks of cemiplimab treatments given through an IV, the tumors were gone.

"We're not used to seeing drugs work that well that fast," Rasco said. 

The trials have been so successful, the drug now has the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which could approve it for more widespread use as early as October.

"We feel like we may be on the cusp of a breakthrough," Rasco said. 

The drug has shown generally few side effects, Rasco said.

Crouch has been off the drug for more than a year, and so far shows no signs of the cancer returning.  Rasco said the drug shows promise of being durable.

"That's really what we've been looking for in oncology for a long time -- treatments that can not just shrink cancer, but keep it from coming back," he said. 

Crouch said his doctor has promoted him to "survivor," and he's back at work with no plans to retire. 

He is now hopeful, not only for himself, but potentially for millions of other patients like him.

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