Cancer vaccine helps Tampa dog with melanoma, raising hope for humans

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TAMPA (FOX 13) – The Cancer Moonshot initiative led by Vice President Joe Biden, who lost his son to brain cancer last year, kicked off this week with a summit at Howard University in Washington D.C.

Cancer Moonshot is a health initiative so big that it's being compared to the project that landed us on the moon — but this time the goal is to defeat cancer.

One of the more than 270 participating companies in the summit was Tampa’s Morphogenesis, a bio-tech company that makes Immune-fx, a personalized cancer-fighting injection.

Even though the research has been almost 20 years in the making, it's still not approved for use in humans. For now it’s being used only in animals, mostly dogs and horses.

One of them, dog Paquita, was at the D.C. event.

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A golden retriever, Paquita was diagnosed with melanoma in her mouth. She underwent surgery, but according to her owner, Emily Holman, the tumor grew back double its previous size.

Veterinarians said that in order to remove it they'd have to remove her jaw.

That's when Holman chose to have Paquita treated with radiation, alternated with the Morphogenesis' cancer vaccine.

The vaccine uses gene therapy to help the immune system kill cancer cells. It works by splicing a special gene into the DNA of tumor cells, turning them into visible targets for the immune system to attack.

Holman said Paquita has had two shots so far.

"It's worked great, you wouldn't even know that she's received any vaccines. She eats normal, she acts like a normal dog, no pain, nothing, no side effects," Holman said.

Barbara Bagby, a former Moffitt Cancer Center nurse, is battling end-stage ovarian cancer. Her tumors are now compressing her kidneys and major blood vessels.

She hopes the Moonshot will succeed.

"I'm hoping it will help others, yes, that aren't as advanced as me," Bagby said.

As a summit host, Morphogenesis’ CEO Dr. Patricia Lawman will compile a list of suggestions gathered from attendees to submit to the vice president.

One recommendation will be to modify current policies for compassionate use of products not yet approved by the FDA. Some companies are reluctant to offer the drugs to patients like Bagby, who have run out of options.

"If we accept a patient as a compassionate care, the way it stands now, that data has to be entered into the clinical trial data,” Dr. Lawman explained. “So most companies, even though there are avenues for compassionate care, won't do it,” he said, “because it will skew their data, it will skew their chances for funding, it will skew their chances for actually regulatory approval of their commercial product."

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