If you’ve ever had a loved one diagnosed with cancer, this thought has probably crossed your mind: “Why haven’t they cured cancer yet?” Take heart: People are actively working toward a cure in our own backyard.
Two of those people are Mark E. Johns, M.D., and James H. Essell, M.D., at Oncology Hematology Care (OHC).
OHC is actively involved in cutting-edge treatments and clinical trials that change cancer patients’ outcomes in the Greater Cincinnati region. It is a comprehensive cancer group that includes medical oncologists, hematologists, radiation oncologists, surgical breast oncologists, gynecologic oncologists and a clinical trials program. With eight locations in the Tri-State, this independent cancer practice provides highly individualized care to each patient.
While chemotherapy, surgery and radiation are still the standard of care for many cancers, it’s no secret the toll they take on a person — and they’re not equally effective for all types of cancer. Research discoveries in targeted therapies and immunotherapies have helped cancer doctors personalize their treatment approach while bringing hope to cancer patients.
Rather than treating all breast or colon cancers the same, doctors at OHC pay attention to the genetic mutations in cancer tissue and create custom treatment plans for each patient based on their tumor and those mutations.
“We’re backing away and saying, ‘What’s driving this cancer to grow, and how do I stop it?’” says Dr. Johns, a medical oncologist and hematologist at OHC. He is the principal investigator for gastrointestinal and genitourinary clinical trials at OHC.
Using genomic testing to evaluate changes in certain genes or proteins specific to an individual’s cancer cells, doctors can select treatments most effective for those changes. In other words, understanding a tumor’s biology allows them to select a treatment, or targeted therapy, that specifically attacks its genesis.
The doctors at OHC are using targeted therapies. These drugs tend to cause fewer side effects allowing many patients to continue going about their normal routine while receiving effective cancer treatment. “Using targeted therapy, we attack the cancer without hurting other cells in the body,” says Dr. Essell, a medical oncologist, hematologist, and blood and marrow transplant specialist. Dr. Essell leads the cellular therapy program for the U.S. Oncology Network. He is the principal investigator for cellular therapy clinical trials at OHC and the principal investigator for chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) clinical trials for the U.S. Oncology Network. He is the medical director of The Jewish Hospital — Mercy Health Cincinnati Cancer and Cellular Therapy Center.
“Many of my family members have had cancer. As a doctor, I want to make a difference, so I support my patients throughout their journeys with cancer and treat every patient as if he or she is a member of my own family,” Dr. Essell says. Fueled by this passion, Dr. Essell became a nationally recognized cellular therapy expert and served as principal investigator of the Caribou Biosciences ANTLER clinical trial, a first-in-world study for B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma (B-NHL).
Chasing a Cure
When a patient comes in for an appointment or a second opinion, OHC’s doctors will work with the patient to find the right clinical trial for their cancer, leaving no stone unturned. When ex-Marine and welding foreman John Hornsby of Latonia, Kentucky, was running out of treatment options for his B-NHL, he was referred to Dr. Essell. Dr. Essell enrolled Hornsby in the ANTLER clinical trial, a groundbreaking CAR T-cell therapy. Hornsby has been in remission for almost two years.
CAR-T is one of the most exciting cancer treatment breakthroughs in recent years. It teaches the immune system to recognize the cancer cells as foreign and fight them. T-cells exist naturally in the body, fighting off viruses and other pathogens. To create the CAR-T, doctors extract immune system T-cells from a patient or healthy donor’s blood, genetically engineer them in a lab to detect and destroy cancer, and then infuse these cells into the patient.
OHC was the first adult cancer group to offer CAR-T therapy in Cincinnati. OHC will be evaluating CAR-T for solid tumors in the near future.
OHC functions like an academic center, participating in clinical trials to stay on the cutting edge of cancer treatment. It has been the first in the nation to enroll patients in many promising clinical trials.
“It’s easier not to put people on a clinical trial. But we firmly believe it’s the right choice,” Dr. Essell says. It’s important to encourage patients to gain early access to clinical trials which offer the latest treatments. “I chose to specialize in oncology because of the fulfillment that comes from treating patients who are dealing with such a critical illness,” Dr. Johns says. “I stay abreast of new and emerging treatments so I can give each patient up-to-date options in treating their cancer.”
“We work with pharmaceutical companies, and we help develop the clinical trials so that they’re more meaningful for our population,” Dr. Essell says.
OHC is part of a network that has participated in developing 90% of cancer medications approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA).
Some of these promising medications are immunotherapies known as bi-specific-T-cell engagers, or BiTE.
“BiTE therapy is like a blind date,” Dr. Johns says. “[It] helps introduce the cancer cell to one of the cells of the immune system and gets the T-cell to recognize the cancer cell.”
BiTE can be dosed repeatedly for recurrent cancers, leading to remission for patients that may have been incurable 10 years ago.
“We have patients that can be stage 4 and live,” Dr. Johns says. “It’s an amazing time to be an oncologist.”
Cutting-Edge Kidney Cancer Treatment
Until recently, nothing improved the survival of a patient with kidney cancer after the kidney had been removed.
Tom Gornall was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer in his 40s. Because he received care at OHC, he enrolled in the KEYNOTE-564 clinical trial. Today, Gornall is in remission.
As a result of the KEYNOTE-564 trial, the FDA approved the drug Keytruda. Gornall recently learned a fellow coworker is currently receiving the drug Keytruda — all because cancer groups like OHC enrolled patients like him in life-saving clinical trials. “You hear the ‘C’ word, and you’re going to be sad. Maybe I’ve helped some people by going on this trial and getting the therapy FDA approved,” Gornall says.
“[At OHC], we live and breathe these standard-changing trials every day of our lives because it’s just what we do,” Dr. Johns says. “When I was in medical school, we had zero treatments that affected the survival of kidney cancer. Now, I have patients with kidney cancer who are years out that came in metastatic. That never happened when I started.”
Hope for Colon Cancer
Colon cancer is the fourth-most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. OHC is in the observational portion of a clinical trial that will hopefully change the outcome for colon cancer patients.
That trial starts with a simple blood draw to see if the patient has circulating tumor DNA. If they do, they have a high chance of relapse if nothing is done.
DNA from each individual patient’s colon cancer is submitted for sequencing. Then, that information is used to manufacture a custom mRNA vaccine tailored to a patient’s exact cancer mutations. When the patient receives the vaccine, it primes the immune system to fight the cancer cells present, diminishing the chance of recurrence.
A Community Changed
Because of OHC’s work to increase cancer survival rates, our city has fewer widows and widowers. There are grandchildren who have the chance to meet their grandparents. Some people have found deep purpose because they have more years to live.
“When a patient faces a diagnosis that is as serious as cancer, it changes them forever,” Dr. Johns says. “I’ve had patients go on to be nurses and volunteers in our offices. These patients do good things for our communities and society at large.”
These success stories might only be possible with patient participation in clinical trials and cutting-edge treatments available close to home. Thanks to groundbreaking research and OHC doctors like Dr. Essell and Dr. Johns, soon there will be a day when we have a cure for cancer through innovative therapies allowing survivors to live the lives they love.
Do you need to talk to a cancer specialist at OHC? Visit ohcare.com or call 888-649-4800 for more information.