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Fooling the system

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Whistler local at forefront of innovative cancer research

What Devon Brusse thought was a recurring bladder infection for over a year, turned out to be non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer for which there is no current cure.

But the 34-year-old, mother of one, is helping scientists find the cure.

Brusse, who has been living in Whistler for about 10 years, was the first British Columbian to take part in a new vaccine therapy clinical trial in Vancouver. There have been 12 others in B.C. to follow her lead so far.

In addition to a Vancouver site, the study is also taking place in Edmonton, Toronto and across the U.S.

It is a novel way of targeting follicular B-cell lymphoma, which Brusse was diagnosed with in July 1999 – the same time she found out she was pregnant with her first child.

The study is the first lymphoma immunization trial ever to be done in Canada and represents the culmination of years of painstaking research.

For Brusse however, it represents hope.

The basic idea of the study is to fool the immune system into effectively attacking the disease.

"This is the principle behind any attempt to recruit the immune system into part of cancer treatment," said Dr. Joseph Connors, head of the lymphoma tumour group at the B.C. Cancer Agency.

"This is built on work that has taken 20 years to accomplish."

To trick the immune system into attacking the lymphoma, doctors took a needle biopsy from Brusse's bone marrow to extract proteins from the cancerous tissue.

That sample was then manufactured into a customized vaccine by California based Genitope Corp. They created a unique vaccine, which is only good for Brusse's body.

The vaccine is injected, along with immune boosters to help it spread throughout her body, with the hope that the immune system will begin to fight the malignant cells.

"(We) give her back the protein that was derived from her own lymphoma," said Connors.

Trial participants received six months of chemotherapy, followed by six months of rest. This phase of the study consists of seven vaccine injections into both thighs once a month for seven months.

There is no guarantee that the vaccine will work.

There is no data on the long-term effects.

And it's a randomized blind trial – only two-thirds of trial participants will get the active shots and one-third will get a dummy shot to ensure the trial is accurate.

Despite the unknown and the potential risks, it's still worth it for Brusse.

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