In June 2011 Dr. Alisa Hideg was a 42-year-old mother and family physician in the prime of her career practicing at Group Health in Spokane when she was diagnosed with estrogen and progesterone receptor negative/HER 2 positive breast cancer.
Breast cancer in young, premenopausal women is usually aggressive. So even after chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and radiation, with her cancer in remission, Hideg wasn’t ready to take it easy. Both the type of breast cancer and the fact that it happened at a young age made her chances of relapse higher. This knowledge led her to experimental trials, and to the UW’s Tumor Vaccine Group.
Hideg found the UW Tumor Vaccine Group on the National Institutes of Health clinical trials website, ClinicalTrials.gov. She had heard about a trial at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelmen School of Medicine, where the use of gene-transfer therapy converted the patients’ own immune cells into weapons aimed at cancerous tumors. All 12 patients had advanced stage leukemia; nine of the 12 responded positively to the treatment, and two of the first three patients treated have been in remission for two full years. The Perlelmen results encouraged her to seek out a UW study to see if she qualified.
The UW Tumor Vaccine Group currently offers clinical trials for patients with breast, ovarian or colon cancer. Hideg is in a very desirable trial with very specific criteria, and being approved to participate wasn’t easy. The goal of the clinical trial is to allow the patient to make and keep enough antibodies to quash any future HER-2 expressing breast cancer.
Dr. Nora Disis, UW professor of medicine and principal investigator of the study, explains how the vaccine may work.
“The vaccine is designed to stimulate a particular cell of the immune system, the T cell, to recognize the HER2 protein (that causes cancer),” Disis said. “If effective immunity is generated, the T cell activated by the vaccine should be able to hunt out tumor cells wherever they may be and destroy them. This particular study is testing the use of an immune stimulator, ampligen, which may be able to activate the T cells more effectively than other agents we have used before.“
Last month, Hideg received a vaccine dose at UW Medical Center. The process is gentle — a series of four small injections that make a little grid of dots on the upper arm — but the body’s response can be angry. Hideg experienced flu-like symptoms after the first visit. The reaction may actually be a promising sign that her body is responding to the vaccine.
She’s positive and funny in the face of serious medicine. She tweets pictures of her experience to a network of fans and writes about her cancer in Spokane’s daily newspaper, the Spokesman-Review. In addition to being a doctor, patient and full-time mother, Hideg recently went through a series of intense interviews to add “teacher” to her resume. She has become a clinical faculty member to teach second-year UW medical students at the Spokane WWAMI site. WWAMI is a regionalized medical education program that covers Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.
“Teaching has always been a part of my clinical practice,” Hideg said. “I have taught medical students, residents and others in my clinic since I finished my own training. This experience has reminded me how important teaching can be and how much I enjoy passing on what I have learned as a physician, a parent, and as a patient. Whether the vaccine is effective for me or not, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the trial and help move the science forward. I believe in the potential of vaccine therapy for cancer and perhaps for other diseases also and I want a future with more options for my daughter and for others.”