Cardinal George dropped from drug trial to treat cancer

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Cardinal Francis George ended 2014 with some bad news: He was dropped from the clinical drug trial to treat his cancer because recent scans showed it hasn’t worked for him, the Archdiocese of Chicago said in a statement Wednesday.

While the experimental antibody drug was not effective in George’s case, physicians and others overseeing the trial assured him the information they gathered during his treatment will benefit others, the archdiocese said.

George was participating in a trial being conducted by University of Chicago Medicine, but he also remained under the care of Loyola University Hospital.

The University of Chicago did not respond to a request for information regarding the drug trial.

In announcing George’s participation in the trial in August, the archdiocese said the drug “may work by activating cells of the immune system, enabling them to attack cancer cells. This approach differs from that of traditional chemotherapy, which uses drugs designed to be toxic to cancer cells. A preliminary trial of this new drug has shown promising results for patients who have the same type of cancer as Cardinal George.”

Holli Kolkey Dickson, spokeswoman for Genentech, maker of the drug, called MPDL3280A, said in an emailed statement that there are 19 ongoing studies of the immunotherapy drug, which is in the early stages of development. The clinical trials are evaluating the drug’s safety and effectiveness in treating lung, bladder, skin, breast, kidney cancer and lymphoma, she said.

The drug “interferes with a protein called PD-L1 on the surface of cancer cells that acts as a ‘stop sign’ that prevents the immune system from attacking cancer cells, Dickson said. By blocking the protein, the drug may help the immune system recognize and attack the cancer,” she said.

George revealed in March that he was undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer surrounding his right kidney and that he expected the cancer to likely be the cause of his death.

American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis Brawley commended George for participating in the clinical trial, noting that only about 3 percent of adult cancer patients enter clinical trials.

“We’ve had a 22 percent decline in cancer mortality since 1991,” Brawley said. “We could make greater progress if we had more people going onto clinical trials.

“Immunotherapy is a common thing we’re working on nowadays,” he added. “Several drugs have been approved and found to be useful in treatment of melanoma and kidney cancer.”

Brawley declined to speculate on what being dropped from the drug trial might signal for George’s prognosis.

George will meet with his physicians at Loyola in January to discuss how best to address some of the side effects of his cancer, which so far has not spread to any vital organs, the archdiocese said.

George has not disclosed specifics on the side effects, archdiocese spokeswoman Colleen Dolan said.

Asked how he is feeling overall and if he has been able to remain active, she said, “He has visited with family and has gone out to lunch and dinner with friends.”

He was diagnosed with cancer in August 2012 and underwent chemotherapy at that time.

He had radical surgery to remove his cancerous bladder, prostate and part of his right ureter in July of 2006. He spent 19 days at Loyola and emerged cancer-free at the time.

George “is at peace, but he counts on everyone’s prayers that he might be of service to the Lord and his church in the time left to him,” according to the archdiocese statement.

He extends thanks to those who have prayed for him and ask that they continue to do so, the archdiocese said.

George retired in November as archbishop of Chicago and was succeeded by Archbishop Blase Cupich.

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