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Dr. Walter Quan’s research into helping the body’s immune system fight cancer is helping patients such as Eddy McCoy. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Immunotherapy Offers Hope against Deadly Cancer

By Doug Boyd

Some cancer patients may benefit from a therapy being studied and practiced at East Carolina University that boosts their own immune system to fight the disease.

Dr. Walter Quan, an associate professor and director of cancer immunotherapy in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Brody School of Medicine, is helping patients with melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – and kidney cancer through the use of interleukins and studying ways to make them more effective.

“Twenty years ago, we would say to people with melanoma that is metastatic (spread to other parts of the body), there’s not any treatment that can make your cancer go away, there isn’t any treatment that can make you live longer,” Quan said. “The good news is there is something we can do. This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen in my career.”

Quan is a nationally recognized expert in the use of the immune system to treat metastatic kidney cancer and melanoma. It uses the body’s white blood cells to attack cancer, particularly through the use of messenger proteins called interleukins. Interleukin-2 does not kill tumor cells as chemotherapy does but instead stimulates the growth of immune cells, including T-cells and natural killer cells, that can destroy cancer cells directly.

Eddy McCoy, a 65-year-old farmer from Hugo, had never been sick before feeling a small lump on his neck in 2002. The lump turned out to be melanoma. Dr. Rosa Cuenca, an ECU surgeon, removed the lump and a satellite tumor. Evidence showed the cancer had spread to McCoy’s lungs. That’s when he started receiving treatment from Dr. Quan.

“I feel pretty good most of the time,” McCoy said recently while in Pitt County Memorial Hospital receiving a regular treatment. “I ain’t dead yet. According to what they told me, and they didn’t tell me till four years later, I was supposed to be gone.”

While chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are all effective cancer treatments, they also can carry significant discomfort and side effects. Immunotherapy has fewer and less severe side effects.

“Quality of life is good,” Quan said. “We have some people able to work. We’re happy with what this quality is, but we want it to be better.”

Immunotherapy also gives people hope where before none existed.

“We tell folks, ‘We think you have a fighting chance,’” Quan said. “What they’re looking for is a fighting chance. People are looking for hope. This therapy provides that.”

Quan’s research is supported in part by a $17,000 grant from the Brody Brothers Foundation Endowment Fund at ECU. Last year, Quan published an article on his latest findings in the journal “Cancer Biotherapy & Radiopharmaceuticals.”

This page originally appeared in the Feb. 23, 2007 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at