MORRISTOWN, NJ – John Snyder, 57, is among the estimated million people who are living with melanoma as he continues his valiant fight against skin cancer that has already spanned over five years. Despite enduring a seemingly endless string of treatments that ranged from chemotherapy and radiotherapy to surgical procedures and experimental treatments, there had been little headway made against his advanced form of Stage IV melanoma.
That is, however, until Snyder began an innovative treatment in a clinical trial with Dr. Eric Whitman at Morristown Medical Center that began in June 2018.
Snyder, a Pennsylvania native, was being treated at the Hershey Medical Center when he discovered an opportunity to participate in a progressive clinical trial that had great promise. Since he had endured many failed attempts at treating his melanoma, Snyder saw this as his last shot at beating cancer.
Unlike previous treatments, this process involved a combination of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, plus a new technique of leveraging the patients’ own white blood cells—known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes (TILS)—all designed to help kill the patient’s cancer cells.
A portion of the patient’s tumor is surgically removed and sent to a special lab through the research sponsor, Iovance Biotherapeutics, where the patient’s white blood cells that have recognized the cancer are extracted and stimulated with special substances in a sterile environment to make them more effective in fighting skin cancer.
“We know that these white blood cells know how to find his melanoma cancer,” said Dr. Whitman, who has more than two decades of experience specializing in treating patients with advanced skin cancer. “But they weren't able to kill the melanoma.”
That’s where the other components of the treatment come into play. In order for the newl modified, hand-selected white blood cells (TILS) to fight the cancer, Snyder’s existing white blood cells must be eliminated so that his immune system can be revitalized.
First, Snyder underwent chemotherapy treatments to kill off most of the white blood cells in his bone marrow. Then, the TILs grown from his own tumor were infused intravenously, reconstituting his white blood cells with cells able to locate the cancer cells.
The following day, Snyder was treated with a powerful immunotherapy called Interleukin-2 to enhance the ability of the new white blood cells to become as active as possible and fight his melanoma.
Nearly one full year after receiving this treatment, Snyder said that he “seems to be winning” his fight thanks largely to the help of Dr. Whitman.
“(The cancerous tumors) that were in me have shrunk or disappeared, and we haven’t seen anything new appearing,” said Snyder. “My energy levels are improving and I’m starting to feel more like myself.”
Snyder added that the diagnosis has put a new perspective on his life.
“I definitely feel that this has given me a second shot at life and this has brought me closer to God,” he said. “From the beginning this has brought me closer to Him and guiding me to the doctors. I’ve had prayers coming from every direction so there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s what was guiding things.”
This attitude, Snyder explained, has been crucial in his fight.
“I’m not giving up," said Snyder. "I was scared to death, but I wasn’t going to let it win. I have confidence that I can beat this.”
However, he also said the inspiration to fight comes from the support system that stems largely from his wife, Cathy.
“Her support over these years has meant everything to me,” said Snyder. “The three weeks that I was at the hospital, she was staying at a nearby hotel so that she could be by my side every day instead of maybe only coming on the weekends. She took time off from work and was there every day.”
Snyder admitted that this treatment extends beyond his life, stating that if he can "help this trial prove itself, [he] might be helping somebody else."
That help to somebody else could become a reality in the near future, as the therapy will “hopefully some day soon be approved by the FDA,” according to Dr. Whitman.
“The results that have been published have been really amazing,” said Dr. Whitman. “They are treating people like Mr. Snyder who have failed at all other treatments for their melanoma and may have given them another chance.”
Right now, TIL-based therapy is experimental and is only available at a handful of locations throughout the world—including the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center at Morristown Medical Center. If approved, however, it could become widely accepted and available.
Although early studies have shown that more than 50 percent of patients have effectively responded to treatment, the current study might provide enough additional success stories to lead to FDA approval, according to Dr. Whitman—making it a valuable therapy option for melanoma treatment.
“If this is successful, then eventually patients won’t have to travel far to get TIL-based therapy,” said Dr. Whitman. “There’s also hope that this type of treatment will some day work in other cancers, too.
“Despite all the advancements that have been made over the years in treatment against melanoma skin cancer, it remains a huge public health threat. It seems to be a little worse in New Jersey—perhaps because we have such nice beaches and sun-filled recreation readily available here.”
Despite the general excitement for this potential breakthrough in treatment against advanced melanoma, the disease remains the leading cause of cancer death in young women between the ages of 25-to-30 years old. Additionally, skin cancer overall is the most common form of cancer in America, with one in five people estimated to develop the disease in his or her lifetime.
Morristown Medical Center hopes that Snyder's story will serve as a reminder to all those planning to visit a beach this season to keep their health in mind to potentially avoid serious skin issues down the road, as preventative care is still the best approach.