Clinical trials offer hope


Rosemary Rathbun and Lorrine Rodgers, grandmothers who were on death’s doorstep before they took part in the first in-human trial of a new antibody drug, told me they wanted to share their stories so other cancer patients would avail themselves of clinical studies that might save their lives.

They had taken a drug called MPDL3280A that made them cancer free. The 16-week therapy is delivered through an IV for a couple of hours once every three weeks. Rathbun was so close to death from throat cancer that she had been advised to enroll in hospice.

It is unknown whether the women’s cancer will return. It is also unknown why the drug works well on some people — two bladder cancer patients also had remarkable results — but not on others.

The morning after the story on Rathbun and Rodgers ran — it appeared in the Jan. 12 print and Web edition of the Review-Journal — more than 100 people called Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada to learn about their trial and others.

The inquiries have not stopped, with calls coming in not only from Nevada, but from other states and countries as well, including Florida, California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, India and Poland. Patient coordinators are so swamped other staffers are answering phones so calls can be returned.

Talking with Rathbun and Rodgers — above all else, they said they wanted to give people hope — made me realize yet again how people want, actually seem to have an innate need, to be a contributor, a builder, a genuine worker on behalf of humanity.

It is the part of being human that is a joy to behold.

While biologists tell us every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive, some of them also say studies show that humans have a natural willingness to help.

Indeed, Frans de Waal wrote in his 2009 book “The Age of Empathy” that humans are “preprogrammed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.”

Only those who are psychopaths, he notes, are emotionally immune to another’s situation.

All of us, de Waal argues, would be far better off placing our trust in our biological nature than in the political institutions that so often pit people against one another.

“I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope,” he writes. “One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

Much of our coldness toward each other is learned behavior.

The whims of politics, of course, are the reason billions of dollars could be spent on the unnecessary war I was part of in Vietnam, while money was scarce for the millions of Americans who needed medical care and for children who needed quality educations.

Yes, when people allow themselves to be people first, instead of Democrats or Republicans or Tea Partyers or whites or African-Americans or Hispanics or Asian-Americans, we’re all better off.

Hearts of stone are then more difficult to find.

When researchers at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health let people know recently they needed volunteers for a trial that may play a role in unlocking the mystery that is Alzheimer’s disease — it will be the largest preventive study on the disease ever done — 300 people volunteered in a matter of hours.

And the phone is still ringing off the hook.

I’ll wager that most of those people share the characteristics of Jerry and Verna Kinersly, whom I met in 2012. Verna had a mild form of the disease and she and her retired banker husband understood that it was highly unlikely that the Ruvo Center trial Verna volunteered for would help her situation.

“We don’t want other people to have to go through this,” Jerry Kinersly said. “We hope something is learned from this trial which can one day lead to something else that eventually really helps people.”

“That’s right,” Verna Kinersly said. “Maybe what I do will mean those who are now kids won’t get it.”

Ann Lovelace, manager of clinical research projects for Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, said she is always impressed by how altruistic volunteers for clinical trials are.

“There just seems to be this need to help others,” she said.

Eight years ago a homeless man in North Las Vegas told me practically the same thing.

Stanley Washburn, a one-eyed Navajo who had been living in a foxhole in a vacant field, saw a little girl dart into the path of a Cadillac near Lake Mead and Las Vegas boulevards. To his horror, the car struck the child and she was dragged beneath the luxury car’s carriage.

Washburn, who had been drinking beer with a couple of other homeless men, yelled to them, “Let’s go,” and they ran to the scene. Dropping their beer cans in the street, they somehow managed to lift the 5,000 pound automobile off the child, who wouldn’t have lived otherwise.

The other men, fearful of police, ran off. Washburn stayed to help with the child, who made a miraculous recovery.

Why did he do what he did?

“Just because I’m a drunk doesn’t mean I’m not human,” Washburn said as he fingered his eye patch. “I had an opportunity to help somebody so that’s what I did. It’s what all people want to do.”

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.