Immunotherapy clinical trial puts bladder cancer survivor on road to renewed health
After Ron Speidel retired, he and his wife, Brenda, ventured around the U.S. in their RV for nine years.
“Then I got the big C,” says Ron, 70. After playing college football as an athletic youth in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, he served as a police officer for 30 years — including 18 as a K-9 handler in high-risk operations.
“I was always very active,” he says, noting his surprise when he discovered blood in his urine during a stay at his home in Mission, Texas. His physician sent him straight to a urologist in nearby McAllen, Texas, who confirmed his doctor’s suspicion of bladder cancer.
Here, he met with genitourinary medical oncologist Jianjun Gao, M.D., Ph.D., who prescribed an arduous chemotherapy regimen (four rounds of imethotrexate, vinblastine, adriamycin and cisplatin over eight weeks), as well as urologic surgeon Brian Chapin, M.D., who subsequently operated on him.
Facing bladder cancer metastasis
“I’ve been shot at, stabbed, went out looking for bad guys I knew were armed — but this was the worst situation I had faced,” Ron says of his diagnosis. “It took its toll.” He toughed it out, though, and got a clean bill of health. Because bladder cancer frequently returns, Ron’s care team continued to monitor him with checkups, labs and scans every three months. After a year had passed, Gao told him that the cancer had returned and metastasized to the bone.
“He just sat down and said, ‘Ron, there’s nothing more we can do. You’ve gone through the harshest chemo,’” Ron recalls. It seemed they had reached the end of the road.
But then another route opened. Gao said a clinical trial might hold the key to the Speidels’ future. Ron immediately thought of his lifetime of service. “Dr. Gao said I had six months, give or take a month. If I’m going to go, I want to go out doing some good by helping to advance cancer research,” Ron says.
But it was unclear whether any clinical trials would soon be available, so the Speidels drove back to Mission, with Ron mentally preparing himself for a painful death. After three months, just when Ron feared he’d have to start pain meds, Gao’s office called and offered him the chance to return to Houston to qualify for an immunotherapy clinical trial.
The Speidels had renewed hope when Ron met the criteria and was enrolled.
Immunotherapy clinical trial provides new lease on life
The 15-person clinical trial had two arms. Patients in one group received the immunotherapy drug nivolumab, while those in the other received a combination of nivolumab and ipilimumab, the immunotherapy credited to the Nobel Prize-winning research of Jim Allison, Ph.D.
“I was in the second group,” Ron says, calling it “a piece of cake” compared to chemotherapy. “I had no side effects,” except it compromised his thyroid, he says. He now takes a daily thyroid pill.
Ron learned that all but three participants in the trial had succumbed to their cancer. But for him, the outcome has been lasting. “The past four or five years, I’ve been completely stable,” he says.
Ron’s six months have exceeded six years so far. That’s additional time he and Brenda have spent traveling. They’re on the road six months of every year, enjoying the new travel trailer they purchased to celebrate their new lease on life.
As Gao says, Ron is “living proof that there are positive responses” to immunotherapy in bladder cancer patients.
Meeting the researcher behind immunotherapy
Ron’s cancer journey highlights how advances in immunotherapy are saving lives. His immunotherapy experience came full circle at the launch of MD Anderson's James P. Allison Institute March 24. In an emotional exchange, Speidel expressed his gratitude to the institute’s director, Jim Allison, Ph.D., who received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2018 for his discoveries that laid the foundation for cancer immunotherapy. Moved to tears when embracing Ron, Allison noted that improving the lives of patients such as Ron meant more to him than any award.
The Allison Institute will advance exceptional discovery, translational and clinical research to integrate immunobiology across disciplines and unlock the full potential of science and medicine for human health.