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Having Faith in Science to Treat Prostate Cancer

Headshot of Bill, a prostate cancer survivor

Bill is glad he took a leap of faith and became the first participant in an NCI clinical trial to treat prostate cancer.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Bill.

As a pastor and leader in the Black community, Bill has devoted his life and career to working in the service of others. And he has great faith in the goodness of people. Nineteen years ago, he was led to start a new church to provide physical and spiritual solace to members of the community. He used his influence to help Washington, DC, administrators bring local leaders of many faiths together to help improve conditions for residents.

Five years ago, Bill was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer and took his own leap of faith and enrolled in a first-in-human clinical trial for a new prostate cancer treatment approach.

When Bill visited his doctor in early 2015, a blood test revealed an elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA). PSA is a protein produced by cells of the prostate gland. While doctors consider a normal PSA level to be in a range from 0‒4, the level can be higher. Doctors pay attention to elevated PSA levels as they may indicate possible prostate cancer. Bill’s PSA was in the 30s and, after further screening, he learned that he had advanced-stage prostate cancer. Removal of his prostate reduced his PSA level, and it was kept low temporarily with radiation treatments until his PSA level catapulted into the high 60s.

First Patient to Join a Novel Combination Therapy Trial

Bill discussed next steps with his physician and learned about a phase 1 clinical trial led by James Gulley, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Genitourinary Malignancies Branch in NCI’s Center for Cancer Research. The goal of the trial was to determine the safety of the experimental immunotherapy PROSTVAC in combination with the Food and Drug Administration-approved immunotherapy nivolumab (Opdivo) for men whose prostate cancer had progressed despite receiving other therapies. Immunotherapies have been largely ineffective against prostate cancer to date, but scientists believe combining agents may provide an approach for overcoming drug resistance and improving antitumor immunity.

Bill was the first patient to be enrolled in the phase 1 trial. From the start, his cancer responded well to the combination therapy. His PSA level plummeted in 3 months, from a high of 67 to less than 9. Bill was elated. His greatest discomfort was some swelling in his ankles, which went away when he elevated his feet. A phase 2 trial is underway to determine if additional patients with prostate cancer will be helped by this combination therapy.

Bill continues to help the community by delivering physical and spiritual comfort to his parishioners and those in need. He blesses the day he found the NCI clinical trial and is determined to raise awareness about how science can help people.

“I’m a living witness that the benefit of research is well worth the cost,” Bill avowed. “Now I’m going to be able to continue doing what I do: to help thousands of people on a monthly basis. And I definitely want to help my fellow Black men take better care of their health.”

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