Clinical trial gives UK pathologist new hope
As a longtime pathologist at UK, Dr. Charles Lutz is no stranger to cancer.
Lutz has spent much of his career in the lab and helps patients behind the scenes. At the UK Markey Cancer Center, he works in molecular diagnosis and HLA tissue typing in bone marrow transplantation for leukemia and other cancers. He also helps match patients in end-stage organ failure with an appropriate solid organ transplant for the UK Transplant Center.
But when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer in 2011, the doctor became the patient. Over the next few years, he would undergo extensive surgery and radiation treatments to fight off the cancer, with limited success.
The clinical trial
When his cancer metastasized into his pelvis, Lutz knew that standard therapies weren’t very successful in treating highly aggressive tumors like his. Then his oncologist at Markey, Dr. Peng Wang, offered some good news: He was eligible to enroll in a national clinical trial that was testing a new combined drug therapy for prostate cancer.
The opportunity came with one large drawback: The new therapy – a combination of a standard-of-care androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) and an experimental drug called TAK-700 – would essentially eliminate all testosterone in his body.
As a hormone-dependent disease, prostate cancer can “feed” on testosterone. By eliminating this hormone in the body, the trial sought to determine if this would also stop the aggressive cancer in its tracks.
But testosterone also plays an important role in the body, particularly in men: It’s responsible for muscle mass and strength, sex drive, bone mass, the production of red blood cells, and more. The possibility of eradicating this hormone – along with the energy and vitality it brings – worried Lutz.
“I wasn’t afraid of being in a clinical trial itself, but I was initially worried that the lack of testosterone would make me lose my motivation,” he said.
Lutz ultimately chose to enroll in the trial and began the new therapy in November 2015. The results were almost immediate: Just two months later, he says, the cancer was “undetectable.” His prostate-specific antigen (PSA) – a blood test that screens for prostate cancer – was 52 when therapy began, a full 50 points higher than normal. His PSA then dropped so much that it could no longer be detected.
Although Lutz previously had some reservations about the therapy, he says he made the right decision. In fact, he notes that he thinks the therapy has made him a “better, more empathetic person,” and he has a renewed zeal for life.
“I love life,” he said. “I continue to run, ride my bicycle to work and dance. Last fall, I bought a new house, fell in love with a wonderful woman and re-dedicated myself to the Unitarian Universalist Church. This has been the best year of my life.”
The experience inspired him to evaluate the ways he could give back and make the world a better place. Part of that comes in the form of philanthropy. Lutz has earmarked a bequest of $100,000 each to four organizations he’s passionate about: his church, the Environmental Defense Fund, Doctors Without Borders and the Markey Cancer Foundation, whose mission of reducing cancer mortality in Kentucky now hits very close to home.
“Markey does great work,” said Lutz. “I believe in their mission, and I’m part of the mission myself, in both my research and my clinical work. But I’m also benefiting from the care they provide.”
But his “giving back” also includes his dedication to patients, who benefit greatly from his work in the pathology labs, though they’ll never actually meet face to face. His experience as a clinical trial participant inspired him to open his own clinical trial alongside Wang – the two are partnering to study whether testosterone may inhibit the immune system by studying the immune cells in patients before and after they undergo ADT. In other words, does a higher level of testosterone make a person’s immune response weaker?
“As a patient, Dr. Lutz is very optimistic and full of energy,” Wang said. “Even while on treatment that typically causes fatigue, he was still working in his lab and writing grants. As a coworker, he’s a great partner and very determined.”
Every year, thousands of clinical trials are launched in the U.S. to evaluate new therapies. The UK Markey Cancer Center alone has more open clinical trials than any other cancer center in the region, offering patients access to some of the most advanced treatment options available. By agreeing to participate in a trial at Markey, Lutz not only helped himself but also future generations of patients who will benefit from the discoveries gleaned from that trial.
Though enrollment in the ADT/TAK-700 trial ended in August 2018, Lutz continues to take the combined medicines as they wait to learn about the trial’s overall results and whether the Food and Drug Administration will approve the therapy for standard prostate cancer treatment.
“For me, it has been a miracle, and I am grateful that Dr. Wang offered me the opportunity to be a trial subject,” he said.