ROXBURY, NJ - Rita Coakley is participating in an experiment that involves teaching. To those who know Coakley, who spent 26 years edicating the students of Roxbury, that should come as no surprise.
But this is different.
Coakley’s new endeavor involves teaching the body to protect itself from the cancer cells that form tumors. She’s one of the first patients testing a new form of immunotherapy designed to train a patient’s immune system to fight cancer.
The vaccine under study, called “DCVax,” is unique in that it takes advantage of the ability of white blood cells to recognize – and destroy – a patient’s cancer cells, said Dr. Yaron Moshel, a neurosurgeon with Atlantic NeuroSurgical Specialists of Morristown.
Moshel, who is also co-director of the Brain Tumor Center of New Jersey, performed brain tumor surgery on Coakley earlier this year. After the successful tumor removal, Coakley agreed to participate in the DCVax trial under the guidance of Moshel’s colleague at the center, Dr. Michael Gruber.
“Before Rita started radiation, we collected a coffee-cup’s worth of white blood cells and extracted her dendritic cells,” said Gruber. The cells and Coakley’s tumor were sent to a facility in Tennessee.
“They take the protein from the tumor and introduce it to the dendritic cells so they learn to recognize and kill the cancer cells bearing those proteins,” explained the doctor. “Essentially, Rita’s white blood cells go to boot camp to learn to fight her own tumor cells "
Coakley, who began teaching in Roxbury in 1989 and was awarded Teacher of the Year at Lincoln-Roosevelt School in 2014, said the discovery of the tumor came as a surprise.
During Spring Break in April, she and her husband, Leo, a Roxbury School Board member, were shopping in New York City for a dress Coakley could wear to a wedding. That night, after the shopping trip, Coakley’s husband was shocked when his wife said she couldn’t remember anything about the excursion.
That was particularly unusual because Coakley can usually recall details about every special occasion dress she owns. “By the next morning I remembered everything,” she said. But her husband insisted she go to the hospital, where she had a CT scan.
The next day, when Moshel informed her of the tumor, Coakley was shocked. “I said, ‘You’re kidding,’” she recalled. She said she had no symptoms except for the strange, temporary memory loss and recurring headaches she'd been experiencing, and dismissed as being harmless, for years.
The glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, was in an accessible place. A week later it was completely removed.
“It all happened so quickly,” said Coakley. “I was off on Spring Break, planning to return to school and retire at the end of the year, but this called for a detour. I never went back to work after the break.”
She did return for a surprise party given by her students and their parents. “It was terrific,” Coakley said. “Then I retired, and that’s when my career switched from teacher to researcher.”
Leo Coakley considers the DCVax vaccine “like an extra insurance policy.” In addition to the normal follow-up treatments which include one week of oral chemotherapy for each of the next six months, Coakley might also “have the benefit of the vaccine,” he said.
However, because it is a trial - where results of vaccine use must be weighed against results seen by patients given placebos - Coakley might not be receiving the medicine after all. She doesn't know.
“I’m on a trial study program,” she said. “You make your own vaccine using your own blood and tumor, but I don’t even know if I’m getting that.”
She said her last MRI came up clean. If that changes, and it turns out she was receiving the placebo, Coakley will be administered the vaccine, she said.
Meanwhile, Coakley is looking back fondly on her career and feeling thankful for the love she's getting from many in town. She praised Roxbury residents, especially her fellow parishioners at St. Therese Roman Catholic Church in Succasunna.
“The support from that church has been phenomenal,” said Coakley. “And the community in general is so wonderful, so nice."
Her advice to those diagnosed with cancer: As hard as it seems, "You have to have a positive attitude, prayer and a sense of humor.”