CORAL GABLES —Archie McNealy waged a seemingly hopeless battle for some seven years against a form of cancer known as Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The 30-year-old Miami resident endured a rigorous series of about seven treatments that included a 2006 failed stem cell transplant at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. One treatment, he said, had a side effect of congestive heart failure. By 2008, he was desperate for some treatment that would rid his body of the cancer that has killed some 1,300 Americans this year.
Also called Hodgkin disease, Hodgkin lymphoma is a cancer of the immune system that is marked by the presence of a type of cell called the Reed-Sternberg cell, according to the National Cancer Institute’s Web site. Symptoms include the painless enlargement of lymph nodes, spleen or other immune tissue, fever, weight loss, fatigue or night sweats.
McNealy was in what he described as “rough shape,” with few options left.
“I was feverish. My joints were so tight I could barely walk,” he said. “My skin was shedding. I had large tumors in my armpits and groins.”
“I had to find something else,” he said.
That “something,” unknown to McNealy, was already available, thanks to research done at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
At the urging of Erin Lyden, a nurse practitioner at Advanced Medical Specialties at Baptist Health South Florida in Kendall, McNealy began a course of treatment at the U.M. medical school with the drug brentuximab vedotin (SGN35), now sold as Adcentris.
The antibody forming the nucleus of the drug was developed by Dr. Eckhard Podack, Sylvester Distinguished Professor of Medicine and chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, in 1992.
In 1999, U.M. licensed the antibody to Seattle Genetics which paired it with a powerful cell-killing agent. The drug that resulted has proven effective in killing the cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue intact.
The drug, which the Food and Drug Administration recently approved, “is the first new treatment in years” for just the form of lymphoma that McNealy has, according to Dr. Joseph Rosenblatt, a professor of medicine and interim director of the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is principal investigator of several of the center’s trials testing the drug.
McNealy said he initially turned down the treatment because he feared the side effects – but that was in 2008. “People kept telling me to find a clinical trial,” he said, “so, this year, I finally started my treatments at Miller.”
In May, he began undergoing the treatment at U.M. every three weeks. The drug is administered intravenously and the treatment takes about 30 minutes. While there are side effects, he said, he has not experienced any one of them.
“Everything I thought would happen did not,” he said. “After the treatments, I am tired but I feel better than I have in a really long time.”
McNealy was tested every three months over his long battle with the cancer. “Each treatment I have had has worked to an extent but none has put me into full remission,” he said. “This is the one that has taken me as close as possible. I am what they call ‘low level activity.’ I don’t have any tumors. But I am hoping the next test shows me in full remission.”
The testing includes white blood cell and platelet counts and measures all tumors, McNealy explained. “I came in with four- to five-centimeter tumors in several places in my body.”
With each CAT scan, he has shown improvement, he said. “The two spots that are left in my body are 1.2 and 1.4 [centimeters]. That’s tiny and means no tumors. This is not outside of my lymph nodes and that’s great news. All these years, the cancer has not spread. White blood cells and my platelets are good. That tells me that medicine is getting better.”
McNealy will undergo another test in October and he will continue the treatment until around January, when the cancer is expected to be in remission.
When he was diagnosed with the cancer, McNealy was working as an assistant manager for a pawn shop. He stayed on the job two or three years while also attending Miami Dade College part-time. He quit the job in 2006, finding it too stressful.
He has re-enrolled at the college and is studying business and hopes to obtain an MBA.
“Today, I am attending school and writing a journal about my experiences with the various treatments,” he said. “I cannot do too much interacting in public because of my low [blood cell] counts. It leaves me susceptible to colds and other infections. The treatment is helpful but I need to be safe.
“It’s been a long road and I have had a lot of support. I give it all to God.”
Podack, meanwhile, is pleased that his research work is helping people such as McNealy, some of whom he will never meet, as well as two patients dear to him. His best friend from high school and one of his best students were diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last year.
“I’m really glad this new therapy will be available to them – and to anyone else who may need it,” Podack said.
Cynthia Roby may be reached at CynthiaRoby@bellsouth.net.
Photo: Photo courtesy of University of Miami
After seven years seaching for a cure for his Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer, Archie McNealy found an answer at the University of Miami where a research scientist developed an antibody that resulted in the development of a new drug. McNealy is now undergoing treatment and responding well.