Why you should care
Because a monied solution to a longtime medical trouble may be overdue.
Sixty-eight years is a long time to spend thinking about something as depressing as cancer. But that’s how long 71-year-old Dr. Charles Wiseman has had it on his mind. After losing his father to leukemia at the age of 3, Wiseman “was pissed.” Even as a toddler.
Weaving his way through Los Angeles traffic on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, he admits, “It’s a little harder than I thought it was when I was 10.”
Certainly the words “celebrity” and “cancer” are not entirely unfamiliar bedfellows. But more often than not the two combine to refer to a star stepping into activism. Wiseman is another sort, a celebrity cancer doctor. Movie stars, foreign dignitaries and the wealthy elite come to him for treatment. And for good reason: He is known for being part of the team at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center that pioneered chemotherapy, the most common method today for battling cancer. He was also one of the first oncologists to start developing breast cancer vaccines, before the term “cancer vaccine” was even being used. For 45 years, Wiseman has worked as the principal investigator on innovative treatment protocols at St. Vincent’s Cancer Treatment Center and the Los Angeles Oncologic Institute. He’s the author of more than 100 medical papers. And today, he may be closer than ever to breaking through on that long-ago promise he made to his childhood self.
Silver-haired and sporting 1980s-esque glasses, Wiseman continues to chase success, this time by way of a promising vaccine. Perhaps most interesting, he’s betting on that vaccine to take off thanks to a corporation — one that’s on the map only because of a 24-year-old former investment banker turned partner he met at a wedding.
The vaccine is an experimental treatment called BriaVax. In the United States under FDA rules, experimental cancer treatments like Wiseman’s can be tested only on patients with late-stage cancer who have failed every other possible treatment option. Nearly 12 years ago, Wiseman gathered some cancer cells from a patient because they were uniquely easy to work with, and re-engineered them to break down the tolerance cancers often have toward the immune system. The first safety trial in 2006 doubled the patients’ expected lifetime for a median span of 12 months. “We didn’t know if that was a flash in the pan, or something real,” he reflects. “But by God, we better figure out what Mother Nature is trying to tell us.”
But Wiseman’s work was put on hold in 2006. The program lost financial support from the hospital, and after the recession, other funding sources dried up. He was crestfallen, but decided to dedicate much of his retirement savings to keeping the project alive — “I wouldn’t be able to face my maker if I wasn’t able to say I tried everything possible,” he says today. All this while running his own private practice. Even his purse couldn’t last forever, though. Enter Isaac Maresky, a then 22-year-old investment banker from Toronto, who helped produce a solution: a company called BriaCell, over whose board he would preside. They’d escape the tribulations of the limiting research-funding world.
This is a rare strategy in the land of medical research. Most U.S.-based companies with only a single product in the trial phases seek private angel or venture-capital investment, says William Phelps, the director of preclinical and translational cancer research at the American Cancer Society. Maresky, however, coolly took the company public in December 2014, raising just over $3 million; it was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange at 18 cents per share. In a world of serious funding cuts from the National Institutes of Health — a 2013 sequestration by the Obama administration required a 5 percent cut of NIH’s budget, contributing to an overall budget reduction of 25 percent since 2003 — more medical research needs to be funded from more creative sources. Could Wiseman and Maresky have the fix?
Perhaps for a short while. Without a product on the horizon to sell — e.g., the actual BriaVax vaccine — the company has zero revenue, just investment. (Maresky isn’t too concerned; he says the evidence thus far already has investors in a tizzy.) And there are the usual medical caveats: The vaccine has been used to treat only breast cancer so far, and while the results have been impressive, there is no telling how it will fare against other forms of cancer. Wiseman believes he will likely have to wait two or three years before the drug is fully approved by the FDA for nonexperimental use, but according to Phelps, the trial process typically takes nearly double that much time. (The FDA says it cannot comment on drugs currently in experimental trials.)
Further safety trials of four late-stage breast cancer patients with the BriaVax vaccine concluded in 2008. These were patients who had run out of options, whose immune systems were failing, with a timeline of three to seven months to live. They survived a median of 35 months, roughly five times longer than expected.
One of the patients saw her breast cancer regressed by 90 percent, and virtually disappeared in a lung lesion. But after the FDA-approved trial period of five months, the patient’s cancer returned and spread throughout the breast, lungs and even into the brain. Once BriaCell secured permission from the FDA to provide the patient with additional treatments of the vaccine three months later, however, all cancers regressed rapidly, some entirely, and without side effects.
In March, Wiseman and Co. are seeking FDA permission to test another 24 patients — this time, those with prostate, ovarian, pancreatic, lung, bladder and other cancer types. It’s the biggest test the drug has faced yet. With a long road ahead, this retirement-age doctor, who might have long ago retired, has no intention of trading in his lab coat for golf clubs anytime soon.