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Personalized cancer vaccine offers hope for lymphoma patients

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Most of us have known someone stricken by cancer. Chemotherapy may seem like the only viable treatment option, but doctors at Kaiser Foundation Hospital, UCSD Medical Center and Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego and other hospitals around the country, are testing a new way to fight non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL).

In the United States, about 54,000 Americans a year learn that they have NHL, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system.

The annual incidence of lymphoma has doubled over the last 35 years, and current treatment options are limited and some have significant side effects-one important factor in the drive to find a better approach to treatment.

For the past two decades, researchers at institutions such as Stanford University and the National Cancer Institute have been investigating personalized cancer vaccines as alternatives to treat diseases such as NHL. Favrille, a San Diego biopharmaceutical company, has in development one such personalized lymphoma vaccine, called FavId.

NHL occurs when a cell of the immune system called a "B-cell" becomes abnormal, divides and spreads to other parts of the body. B-cell malignancies express a surface protein that can serve as a target in lymphoma. Each patient's lymphoma expresses a unique protein. FavId is made individually for patients based on the genetic information taken from a biopsy of a patient's lymphoma. When administered back to the patient in the form of an immunization, FavId is designed to stimulate an immune response against the unique protein present on the patient's lymphoma.

In San Diego, physicians are treating patients with follicular NHL, a particular type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, in a phase III clinical trial of FavId.

All patients are first treated with Rituxan, a known effective treatment for follicular lymphoma. Patients are then randomized in the study; some receive FavId and others receive a placebo. Those who receive a placebo during participation in the Phase III trial may be able to receive FavId in a separate companion trial.

Skip Gleavey, 60, a triathlete who was diagnosed with NHL in April 2003, did extensive research on his options for lymphoma treatment and then decided to enroll in the FavId clinical trial.

"I am not looking for just more days to live; I'm looking for more life to live," Gleavey said. "As a marathon runner and triathlete, I wanted to maintain my active lifestyle and be able to compete in races alongside my wife. After much research, I found that there were options other than standard chemotherapy treatment available and enrolled in the FavId trial."

Jonathan Polikoff, a doctor with the Hematology/Oncology Practice at Kaiser Foundation Hospital is leading the FavId clinical trial there.

"FavId is a customized and highly targeted approach to treating NHL," he said. "Unlike chemotherapy, which attacks both tumor and non-tumor cells, FavId is made using a tumor biopsy specific to each patient and works like a vaccine to stimulate that person's immune system to attack only tumor cells."

Patients interested in the trial can contact the hospitals directly or e-mail clinicaltrials@favrille.com.

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