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National - Ottawa Citizen Online


Saturday 4 July 1998

Defying the cancer creed

Crusader fights to open country's first vaccine clinic in Ottawa

Mike Shahin
The Ottawa Citizen

Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen / Bill O'Neill, right, became an advocate for cancer victims after doctors told him his son Liam, now 18, had a brain tumour. His Ottawa-based advocacy and research centre has since drawn more than 5,000 clients.

Bill O'Neill is just getting started in his battle to revolutionize the way people with cancer are treated in this country.

It began six years ago when he found out his 12-year-old son Liam had a brain tumour. Liam's battle spurred Mr. O'Neill and his wife Kathryn to create an Ottawa-based advocacy and research business for cancer victims that is challenging mainstream medicine and has helped more than 5,000 people so far.

Now Mr. O'Neill is working to set up Canada's first cancer vaccine centre -- in Ottawa. He hopes the centre, offering a controversial, experimental method of cancer therapy, will be a prototype for similar clinics across the country.

He now arranges for his clients to get the vaccines from the U.S., mainly from clinics in Georgia and California.

But the trips can be costly, and the burden of travelling can be heavy on some patients. Former Ottawa resident Paul Mahar, for example, said he spent about $80,000 obtaining vaccine therapy in the U.S. over the past four years in his fight against skin cancer.

The centre could be open as early as next spring, Mr. O'Neill said, but there are still obstacles to overcome. He estimated it will take between $500,000 and $1 million to set up the clinic. And government health regulators will likely want to scrutinize any plan to sell vaccines to cancer patients.

Vaccine therapy is making waves in the cancer community. Some say it is the next great hope in curative therapy, others dismiss it as the latest form of snake oil. It has shown some promising scientific results, but it is still under experimentation.

Most versions of immunotherapy, as it is called, attempt to recruit the immune system in the fight against cancerous cells (chemotherapy, by contrast, suppresses the immune system while eradicating cancerous cells). Mr. O'Neill plans to focus on personal vaccines, which are tailor-made for patients using materials from each individual's tumour cells. Drugs such as interleukin-2 are then used to stimulate their immune system.

"We're activating and educating the immune system to seek out and find cancer cells and kill them," explained Jim McCoy, a cancer immunologist who runs Immunocomp Laboratory, south of Atlanta, Georgia.

Immunocomp's therapy has produced a response rate 23 per cent better than that chieved by conventional medicine, said Mr. McCoy, who worked for the U.S. National Cancer Institute for six years. But the data is not yet conclusive, he said, because the vaccine has only been available for a few years and only about 520 people have used it. "We've still got more work to do."

A personal vaccine can't be mass-produced by pharmaceutical companies, and it can't be sold off the shelf. And, unlike chemotherapy and radiation, it is not toxic. Mr. O'Neill said he strongly believes that cancer therapy must work by boosting the immune system, rather than by suppressing it.

Mr. O'Neill's Canadian Cancer Research Group, which has its office on Bank St. in the Glebe, has arranged for two Ottawa doctors, a pathologist and a psychiatrist, to study the vaccine process at Emery State University Hospital in Georgia, which is helping Immunocomp conduct clinical trials, before returning to staff the Ottawa clinic, he said.

The research group is also setting up a foundation, called Hope, that will use cash donations to influence local cancer therapy. For example, Mr. O'Neill said, the foundation might offer Ottawa's Regional Cancer Centre money on condition that it set up vaccine therapy for its patients. Former Ottawa Senators player Jamie Baker, who invested in the research group, will likely run the foundation, Mr. O'Neill said.

Mr. O'Neill also hopes to step up the group's advocacy role with government and industry. "We will go in, solution-oriented, to manufacturers and processors of food and personal care products, and say, 'We can work with you to re-engineer your processes and products so that its not carcinogenic or immunosuppressant; so that it's safe.' "

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