Cancer Survivor Meets Researcher Who Helped Save His Life

The thank you meeting between 21-year-old cancer survivor Steven Guarin and veteran Miller School cancer researcher Eckhard Podack, M.D., Ph.D., lasted only 30 minutes, but was nearly two decades in the making.

In the early ’90s, Podack, Sylvester distinguished professor and chairman of microbiology and immunology, created the antibody that is a key component of SGN-35, a potential new drug that vanquished Steven’s anaplastic large cell lymphoma, bringing him back from the brink of death in June.

So when Steven, a UM communications student, returned to the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center Tuesday for another dose of SGN-35 he’s receiving under the auspices of a Phase II clinical trial, he was delighted Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., introduced him to the man he calls his hero.

“Thank you very much,” Steven told Podack, shaking his hand. “I’m thankful you dedicated your life to research. There are many to thank, but you are the first. It feels good to not be sick.”

Diagnosed with the rare lymphoma at age 18, Steven said the June night he received his first infusion of SGN-35 he had accepted he “was going to die.” After two crippling relapses, he knew he was out of options.

Peter Hosein, M.D., a fellow in hematology-oncology at University of Miami/Jackson, already had guided Steven through a round of standard chemotherapy known as CHOP. He did well for a while, then relapsed. Next, he underwent an autologous stem cell transplant, but the result was the same – a short remission followed by another relapse.

Fortunately for Steven, he was undergoing treatment at an academic medical center, where physicians and scientists work together to develop and test new therapies. What academics call “translational research,” Steven calls a “miracle.”

Hosein knew that Joseph Rosenblatt, M.D., professor of medicine and associate director for clinical and translational research at Sylvester, was principal investigator of a multi-center trial just getting underway for a monoclonal antibody for rare lymphomas like Steven’s. But the Kendall resident was too sick to qualify. He had raging fevers. His kidneys were failing. His blood count was terrible.

Knowing Steven didn’t have long to live, Rosenblatt convinced the trial sponsors, Seattle Genetics Inc., to accept him anyway, making him the first patient in the trial. The gambit worked. Within 36 hours, Steven’s tumors had disappeared. He never would suffer the debilitating side effects of other chemotherapies.

“I went from fevers and pain and lymph nodes everywhere to walking,” Steven said. “For me, it’s a miracle drug.’‘

After leaving the hospital, Steven learned SGN-35 had started as a monoclonal antibody in Podack’s lab, not far from where he once lay near death. He read that Podack had created the antibody to seek out and attach to CD-30, a receptor on lymphoma cells, then sold the technology to Seattle Genetics in the early 1990s.

Seattle Genetics would later add the chemotherapy drug mono-auristatin to the antibody, creating a novel therapy that targets only cancer cells, leaving healthy tissue alone.
Steven sent Podack an e-mail, calling him his “hero” and thanking him for saving his life. Podack was touched. He rarely heard about, much less met, patients whom his work had helped. Dean Goldschmidt set out to change that, introducing them Tuesday.

“Dr. Podack was the inventor of the antibody that helped you,” Dean Goldschmidt said as Steven and Podack shook hands. “It’s rare that people discover a treatment for any cancer … so I wanted to get the two of you together.”

The 21-year-old cancer survivor and the veteran researcher shook hands, and beamed.

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