SALT LAKE CITY — Gordon Chamberlain was told in October that he'd be lucky to live another four months.
The 66-year-old said he "never saw it coming," but late-stage pancreatic cancer was going to get the best of him.
"My energy levels were low, if I had any energy at all, and I was not able to walk very far or do very much," said Chamberlain, of Murray.
The side effects of rigorous chemotherapy turned out to be too much.
His cancer had already spread to his liver and his lungs, as is the fear with pancreatic cancer. But an experimental treatment may be slowing it down and prolonging Chamberlain's life.
"I was excited because it gave me an option, when, otherwise, there wasn't any," he said Monday, nearly five months after his four-month prognosis. "And I feel better physically, have more energy and my appetite has returned."
He said his quality of life is better, too.
All thanks to a relatively recent discovery made by Huntsman Cancer Institute's Dr. Conan Kinsey, a physician-scientist who has been studying pancreatic tumors, as well as treating people with the disease.
"It's a very, very lethal disease, to say the least," he said, adding that just 8 percent of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive five years. "It's one of the worst of any of the cancers that we diagnose and treat."
Kinsey discovered through experimentation that the use of two pills — trametinib plus hydroxychloroquine — that are already available from two different classes of drugs, could potentially impact the process of abnormal cell division and growth caused by a genetic mutation that leads to pancreatic cancer, and increase a patient's lifespan.
The first patient to ever receive the cocktail of medications lived eight months longer than he was going to with chemotherapy and other treatment.
"It doesn't sound like a lot, but I understand the majority of that time was good quality time," Kinsey said. "He was able to hike and do what he loved to do."
The patient ended up dying from his advanced disease, but was able to do it in the comfort of his home and surrounded by his family, as opposed to being in the hospital.
"For someone with pancreas cancer, but also someone who has received extensive chemotherapy, seeing a response like this is quite remarkable," said Martin McMahon, a cancer researcher at Huntsman Cancer Institute and professor of dermatology at the University of Utah. He said the treatment options are already limited for pancreatic cancer, as there's been no significant advancement in decades.
Unfortunately, symptoms don't show up until it is too late to treat or to remove a tumor in the pancreas, which is why it ends up being so deadly, McMahon said.
So, while Chamberlain is taking it all with a grain of salt, since the treatment is experimental, he is just happy to be alive.
"It gave me quite a bit of hope, and, as it all goes along, it is buying time, but it has also given me a higher quality of life than what the chemotherapy did," he said. "In gaining time, there are so many other treatments coming down the line … who knows what the future holds?"
Still, with the medications, which produce very little side effects, Chamberlain was told he could live up to a year longer, maybe even five.
"My outlook has changed a great deal," he said, adding that he now lives by the adage "Growing old is a privilege denied to many, so thank God for every day you have."
He wants to spend some time in the Florida Keys, go to Hawaii a few more times and maybe even be alive when they launch people into outer space. He'd also like to witness the northern lights in Alaska.
For now, he is just "enjoying time with my wife and all of our kids." Their combined 10 children and 15 grandchildren are also grateful he's still around.
Kinsey and McMahon are hoping to enroll more patients in a clinical trial to further test the medications and their theory, but also, through the process, be able to determine some of the risk factors that might lead to pancreatic cancer so that better screening for the fatal disease can be done in the future.
"This is a gradual process," McMahon said, adding that their discovery provides a foundation for themselves and other researchers to turn this therapy into something even more effective. The two believe the medications taken together might also be helpful in treating the 25 percent of cancers that begin with the same type of mutations in the KRAS gene, including lung, colorectal and melanoma.
They are grateful for people like the first patient who consented to the treatment and showed them that it could work, but also for Chamberlain and others who have the "courage," McMahon said, to go through it.
"If you look at progress in cancer treatment, it relies on the courage of individuals to take on experimental therapies that may not provide them any benefit, but may help patients in subsequent years," he said. "That is a remarkable thing."
But, McMahon cautions, cancer treatments don't always produce the same results.
"The fact we had one patient respond really, really well to our therapy does not mean that all patients with pancreatic cancer will respond in the same way," he said. "And that is something we need to figure out."
The clinical trial, which is already underway, will take on three pancreatic cancer patients at a time at Huntsman, eventually enrolling a few hundred patients at different cancer centers in the country, including at Huntsman, the University of California, San Francisco, and at Columbia University in New York, which are working together on developing this therapeutic technique.
But, McMahon said they'll have no trouble getting the numbers they need, and have already had referrals.
"There is no shortage of patients, sadly, with pancreas cancer," he said, adding that the level of advocacy for pancreatic cancer is not as high as it is with other cancers because people who get it die so quickly.
"When you see one patient respond, it's obviously great for that patient, but cancer is a tough disease, and pancreatic cancer is an especially difficult disease to treat," he said.
The Huntsman-led research, which acknowledges the courage of its first patient, is bolstered by a separate study published in the same issue of Nature Medicine by researchers at University of North Carolina's Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. The two teams collaborated on their findings and can likely make a bigger impact.
The local research, which went from concept to patient in just 20 months, is supported by charitable donations from Utah-based Qualtrics' "5 for the Fight" organization, the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, the National Cancer Institute and others. It is one of many studies and clinical trials conducted at the innovative Huntsman center.
"I'm in good hands," Chamberlain said. "I couldn't be in better."