Using Medicine and Science to Improve the Quality of Life
Professor of medicine, surgery and molecular and medical pharmacology at the University of California Los Angeles and a director of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at U.C.L.A.
In January 2012, R. Stewart Scannell’s doctor flatly informed him that melanoma had spread throughout his body and into his brain and he had just months to live. “There was no sympathy, no empathy, no nothing,” Mr. Scannell said.
Mr. Scannell, who was 64 at the time, didn’t want to give up. He tracked down a clinical trial at U.C.L.A., and turned up in the office of Dr. Antoni Ribas.
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The tone was so different, said Mr. Scannell, who has flown from his home outside Oklahoma City to Los Angeles for treatment every three weeks since, a total of 105 times. He now considers Dr. Ribas a friend.
Dr. Ribas is a patient favorite not only because of his bedside manner. He has also saved their lives.
For the last 17 years, Dr. Ribas, 52, has been at the forefront of a revolution in treating cancer, by turning the patient’s own immune system against it.
Mr. Scannell’s tumors have either stopped growing or shrunk for the last six years. He has had no obvious side effects, and he is back on the golf course a day or two after each treatment, he said.
Most patients don’t get such fabulous results, however, and half of those with metastatic melanoma still die within five years. So Dr. Ribas, a fourth-generation physician who spends two days a week seeing patients and the rest in his lab, has been studying other ways to manipulate the immune system to fight cancer.
“It’s always nice to see responders, but I see the ones who don’t respond, too,” Dr. Ribas said. “It’s not the time to slow down. It’s time to do more.”
In 2001, when cancer immunotherapy was mostly dismissed as hopeless, Dr. Ribas began one of the first clinical trials to test it. His first patient to respond is still alive. He later led the clinical development of an immunotherapy drug called Keytruda, which has since been approved to treat metastatic melanoma, lung cancer and other tumors.