When most people think of cutting-edge cancer research, they envision the Mayo Clinic, or perhaps a large university hospital.
But cutting-edge research and clinical trials are taking place right here in Long Beach. Pacific Shores Medical Group, with its first office on the St. Mary Medical Center campus, can claim breakthroughs in immune therapies and targeted therapies that could change the face of cancer treatment. Some already are in use, according to Dr. N. Simon Tchekmedyian, the firm’s founder and medical director.
“We’ve been in business since 1986, and we’ve been involved in clinical trials since we started,” Dr. Tchekmedyian said. “We have access to revolutionary drug technology due to those clinical trials. We’re concentrating on immunotherapy now. The cancer cells can no longer hide.”
Pacific Shores now has five offices, including a second in Long Beach near the airport as well as in Glendale, Huntington Beach and Irvine. Dr. Tchekmedyian said more than 16,000 procedures a year take place in those offices, with an estimated 60,000 patients since the office opened.
When patients need more attention than outpatient treatments can provide, Dr. Tchekmedyian and his colleagues have hospital privileges at 12 different hospitals, including St. Mary and Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.
“Whatever and wherever is best for the patients,” Dr. Tchekmedyian said. “That’s where we will be.”
Pacific Shores provides comprehensive hematology and oncology services, meaning they treat most cancer and blood disorders, including leukemia. That broad spectrum is perfect for immunotherapy, Dr. Tchekmedyian said.
“As a cancer grows, it sends signals to the body’s antibody cells, turning them off,” he said. “It’s sort of like having a guard dog, but the burglar gives the dog treats, and it no longer threatens him. The right immunotherapy not only stops the antibody from getting that signal, it charges them up to go after the cancer cells.”
It appears, Dr. Tchekmedyian said, that some drugs used in immunotherapy may be effective for more than one type of cancer because the target is the antibody and not the specific cancer cell. But that magic bullet hasn’t been found yet.
There have been successes, though. A drug called Yervoy was the first immune-based treatment to prove effective — and that drug was first tested in the Pacific Shores office at St. Mary Medical Center.
“It was designed as an immunotherapy to treat malignant melanoma,” Dr. Tchekmedyian said. “It was the first truly effective treatment, and now it is FDA approved. The very first human to receive treatment was treated here in this office. It took 12 years to get approval, but that first patient is still in remission.”
Cancer cells don’t die, Dr. Tchekmedyian said, but they do divide, causing the cancer to grow. The key to treatment is turning those cells back into normally responsive cells, which do die.
Chemotherapy or radiation indiscriminately destroys cells, taking the good along with the bad. Because of the way immunotherapy drugs are designed, only cancer cells are affected.
Two current areas of emphasis are pancreatic cancer — there appears to be more cases and they are occurring in younger people — and lymphocytic leukemia. There are trials now with new sets of targeted therapies, Dr. Tchekmedyian said, and they involve oral medications, so there are fewer side effects.
“Many things have changed over the years,” Dr. Tchekmedyian said. “When I was in Baltimore, I was taking care of a surgeon who had chronic myelogenous leukemia. It had taken over his liver… He eventually died. Today, I could give him a pill a day and probably cure him.”
Today, a large amount of research is going into genetic constitution of cells and the relation to cancer. That could, in turn, lead to non-specific immunotherapies that could be used to treat many different cancers.
“We have a mission, a passion to do what is best for our patients,” Dr. Tchekmedyian said. “We want them to have the best quality of life possible. That’s what we’re all about.”
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at email@example.com.