Joyce Wheatley will never forget the day she got her diagnosis.
"The doctor in Modesto came into my room and said, 'You have what Ted Kennedy has.' I said, 'Is that supposed to make me feel better? Because he's dying,'" said Wheatley, a brain tumor patient.
Wheatley was rushed to UCSF Medical Center where surgeons removed a deadly tumor from her brain. However, she was scarcely out of the woods. Her type of tumor, known as a glioblastoma, is notorious for reappearing. So during the procedure, doctors took an unusual step to try to prevent that.
"So we take the patient's tumor out, and make a heat shock protein vaccine, and that vaccine can then prevent the tumor from coming back theoretically," said Dr. Andrew Parsa, M.D., from UCSF's Neurosurgery Department.
Parsa is testing that theory with a ground-breaking clinical trial at UCSF. Working with a biotech company, his team used a piece of Wheatley's tumor, to create a vaccine engineered to target her specific cancer.
"The vaccine actually provokes a tumor-specific immune response that is patient specific. T-cells, the killer compound of the immune system, track down the cancer and try to kill it," said Parsa.
The vaccine concept is not new, but until now, it has been used as a treatment of last resort, reserved for patients whose brain tumors showed evidence of reoccurring.
However, that strategy changed, in part, because of several patient support groups and tumor associations. The groups raised private money to help study a more aggressive approach.
So this month at UCSF, Wheatley became the first patient in the country to receive the vaccine at the beginning of her brain tumor treatment regimen. It was a quick injection that will be followed up with others in the weeks to come.
When Wheatley said she felt OK after her injection, Parsa said, "Congratulations. You just made history."
The idea is to combine the tumor vaccine early, while the cancer is being weakened by chemotherapy and radiation. The hope is patients will then be able to manage the disease using their own immune system.
"The best outcome would be that...we convert this deadly cancer into a chronic disease, like diabetes or hypertension. Something a medication can take care of, that's our goal," said Parsa.
While not a cure, regular vaccine booster shots are a regimen Wheatley would be happy to live with.
"I just want to be here. I have lots to do. Nothing in particular, but lots to do. I want to see my grandchildren have children," said Wheatley.