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The clone wars

Annual Report - Annual Report - Winter 2014

By Mary Brolley

Michael Gunter’s had time to think about melanoma.

Who gets it and why. Ways to battle it. Its silent and destructive nature.

Late in 2007, the St. Louis resident noticed a tiny, colorless bump on his left cheek. “It looked so innocent,” he recalls.

Following surgery in early 2008, the bump was diagnosed as a stage IIB desmoplastic melanoma, a rare form of skin cancer most commonly found on the head and neck.

After another surgery to look for the spread of cancer to his lymph nodes, Gunter opted for 26 rounds of high-dose radiation at the spot on his face where the cancer first surfaced.

Despite those efforts, the disease returned a year later. And various grueling treatments couldn’t stop its eventual spread to his lungs, brain, spine and kidney.

Michael Gunter and Patrick Hwu, M.D.
Photographer: John Everett

Then, in 2011, Gunter entered a clinical trial led by Patrick Hwu, M.D., chair of Melanoma Medical Oncology.

Killer T cells extracted from Gunter’s tumor were cloned to vastly expand their number. They were then put back into his body, with positive results.

“It worked,” he says. “I’m not NED (no evidence of disease), but I’m stable.

“I have an appetite. I can work. I have a whole new appreciation for life.”

Recently, Gunter took a tour of the Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocyte (TIL) Laboratory at MD Anderson, where he met the researchers who cloned his T cells.

“They’re trying to grow cells for patients,” he says. “They literally hold people’s lives in their hands.”

“They call him the czar of melanoma. I call him my hero.” 

— Michael Gunter, speaking about Patrick Hwu, M.D.

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