Dr. James Gulley is the Head of the Immunotherapy Section and the Director of the Medical Oncology Service at the National Cancer Institute’s Center for Cancer Research in Bethesda, MD.
Why did you become a doctor?
Dr. James Gulley: I think this has to go back to my high school biology teacher. His name was Vernon McNeilus. He was a retired orthopedic surgeon who just found a way to instill inspiration and that sense of curiosity about life. He drove us to really be excited and interested in science and in biology in particular. I had decided that I wanted to do something in science or medicine, but there was no way that I was going to go spend all that time to become a doctor. I’d been in school long enough. One of my friends decided he was going to go into medicine. I said if he can do it, I can certainly do it.
Then it actually evolved even further than that because during my stint in college I got the opportunity to do a summer research program. I decided I liked research, so I applied to MD/PhD programs and got accepted into two. I decided to go to Loma Linda.
What is it about medicine that keeps you interested?
Dr. Gulley: I think the thing that really drives me is how fascinating it is to understand how things work. I’ve always been fascinated in what makes things work. As a little boy I would take things apart trying to figure out what made them work and then put them back together again. If something was broken in the house, my mom would just give it to me and I’d tinker with it and get it to work again.
To me, the ultimate machine is the human body and one serious puzzle is to figure out ways to bring back health from sickness. Not just a puzzle for curiosity’s sake, but because of the effect that cancer can have on families, to uncover ways to effectively treat cancer. I think it’s truly something that I have seen patients who were close to death who have had remarkable and prolonged clinical responses. That, to me, begs the question that if we can do it for some people, then why can’t we do it for all people? That is what I am passionate about.
Are there any patients you’ve had over the years whose cases changed how you see your own role or the art of medicine?
Dr. Gulley: I’ve had several patients that have been exceptional responders; that really has changed how I view things. One of my more recent exceptional responses from this past year is a retired army surgeon who has advanced metastatic castrate resistant prostate cancer. I have been treating him since 2005. He was initially treated with radical prostatectomy. It turned out that he had a high Gleason disease. He had radiation therapy, but he had recurrence of his disease, unfortunately. He was treated with hormonal therapy, with chemotherapy, with Provenge (sipuleucel-T), and Xtandi (enzalutamide).
He came to me last year having had multiple therapies including other experimental immunotherapies. He was clearly not doing well. His PSA was going up very quickly with a doubling time of less than a month. His symptoms were getting substantially worse. He articulated to me that even going to church every week was becoming difficult: one week he was able to sing the songs and the next week he was too tired to sing. Then the next week he was almost too tired to stand up.
We were able to enroll him in a study combining a vaccine with checkpoint inhibition. When we gave him that combination, his PSA dropped dramatically. It has now gone to undetectable. His lesion in his bladder, which was causing local symptoms so that he had to have a chronic indwelling Foley catheter, shrunk away. When we biopsied it there was no evidence of tumor there. He has some lesions that are seen on bone scan, but I’m not sure if that represents viable tumor or not.
He is now over a year out from when he started treatment. His energy level hasn’t been better since before he was diagnosed. He is out doing everything he wants to do. To me that is amazing. It is amazing we can see responses like that.
From a scientific standpoint, of course, I was stunned to see this and wondered could he have micro-satellite instability that leads to lots of mutations. It turned out that he had micro-satellite instability in his cancer, suggesting that the immune system was able to see his cancer much more readily, so all we need to do is allow those immune system cells to be functional with the Opdivo (nivolumab).
We also had one other patient that didn’t have micro-satellite instability with this combination who also had a really nice 90% or so drop in his PSA. It’s not undetectable, but he hasn’t had the immune checkpoint inhibition for well over a year now. He’s just on vaccine alone because he had some bleeding in his urine from the checkpoint inhibitor. To me, having responses like that changes my outlook. It says the immune system, even in patients with prostate cancer, can be harnessed to attack the tumor. We just have to figure out ways that we can make this more applicable to all patients.