St. Luke's University Health Network

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Cancer Center Doctor Shaves Head to Understand his Patients

Shaved Head Leads to Understanding

St. Luke's surgical oncologist Lee B. Riley, MD, PhD, medical director of St. Luke's Cancer Center, will get his head and beard shaved to experience the hair loss his patients with breast cancer often endure.

“Losing hair is one of the things women undergoing treatment for breast cancer fear most,” says Dr. Riley. “For years I've told patients their hair will grow back, but I'm willing to learn what this one side effect is like. I just thought this would mean more to these women if I put myself in their shoes and experienced what they endure.”

Dr. Riley will go completely bald and have his beard shaved intentionally in front of viewers throughout the Lehigh Valley who tune into WFMZ-TV Channel 69 news Thursday, June 12, at 8 am. The experience also will serve to raise some of the monies needed to further his breast cancer vaccine research. Dr. Riley is one of a select group of doctors involved with breast cancer vaccine research nationwide.

What started out as a spoof has turned into a much-anticipated event. Natalie Miller, proprietor of the restaurant Loopers Grille and Bar in Bethlehem has staged a bartending competition for tips and donations that will take place the evenings of June 10 and June 11 at her establishment. This fundraising venue is sponsored by Green Hope Charities. Miller started the charity along with her husband Paul about three years ago after Paul's father lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. Their message is to the point—we're not all doctors, but we are all working on a cure.

Miller is marketing this as a fight against cancer and enlisted her own bartenders and local personalities to duke it out, including WFMZ's Eve Tannery, Rachel Frank and Matt Broderick, on-air radio personality Freddy Frederick, Jr. from B104, and Jennifer Bergstresser, Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of Lehigh Valley Magazine.

“We're staging this as the boys versus the girls, with the winning team to be announced on WFMZ Thursday morning,” says Miller.

So far, more than $2,500 in funding has come in through grass-roots marketing of this event alone. If $10,000 or more is raised, Dr. Riley will agree to have his eyebrows shaved in front of the camera as well.

Miller says they are reserving tables and expect at least 300 people each evening. “We've received support from several local groups, including Dr. Riley’s patients, St. Luke's employees, teachers from the Bethlehem, Easton and Quakertown school districts, and members of local groups such as Harley Owners of the Lehigh Valley and Pirates in Paradise, Lehigh Valley chapter,” she says. “The Quakertown Kiwanis has even chartered a bus to come out for Wednesday to support the girls. They'll have their meeting on the bus on the way over and come out to participate.”

The winning team will be announced Thursday morning on Channel 69. The biggest tippers and Dr. Riley's patients will be in attendance and get a chance to shave a section of hair along with the winning team.

About the vaccine research
Dr. Riley is convinced his breast cancer research holds promise. “There are at least 30 different vaccines being tested right now in women with advanced breast cancer,” says the physician. “The strategy behind this one is different. We are comparing different immune stimulants to identify which stimulant, or which combination of several stimulants provides the strongest vaccine. We are studying this in women with early breast cancer – a time when we believe the vaccine will be the most effective.”

A week before the tumor and lymph gland are removed surgically, the tumor is “killed” with radiofrequency ablation, a technique similar to microwaves, according to Dr. Riley. This technique is performed under local anesthetic. Currently, the immune stimulating drug GM-CSF is injected into the killed tumor and a vaccine is made inside the tumor. If the GM-CSF is effective, then immune cells will migrate into the lymph glands that drain the tumor.

Following the surgery, the immune cells in the lymph gland and blood are extensively evaluated in the laboratory. It is anticipated that other anti-tumor immune cells will be left to circulate throughout the body as well. These stimulated immune cells hopefully can locate and destroy any remaining cancer cells in the body. During the clinical trial, patients continue to get the same chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy that they would have if they were not on the trial.

“We have known for a long time which immune stimulants work best in mice, but it's not clear that they work the same in patients,” says Dr. Riley. “With this model in humans we can rapidly build this foundation of knowledge in women with breast cancer so we can take the next steps.”

Dr. Riley hopes to vaccinate approximately 50 women over the next three years and have their immune cells and genes analyzed to test the vaccine's effectiveness. He will need close to a quarter of a million dollars just for gene analysis that will need to be outsourced. “We need to see how the genes throughout the body have reacted to the vaccination,” he says.

The ultimate goal of the vaccine is to generate a long-term durable response, according to Dr. Riley. “Today women with breast cancer have surgery to remove the tumor; chemotherapy and radiation are also part of the protocol to limit the risk of the disease coming back,” he says. “Still nearly 30 percent of women with breast cancer will have a recurrence. Ultimately, we hope to demonstrate a marked decrease of cancer recurrence in women who have had this vaccine therapy.”

A positive result for breast cancer patients could mean positive implications for other solid tumors and even lymphomas in the long term as well, according to Dr. Riley.

A hairless, newly coiffed Dr. Riley will go out in public to attend the grand opening celebration of the St. Luke's Regional Breast Center in Center Valley the evening of June 12.