Immunotherapy helps patient find new hope in cancer treatments

Jeff Habermel’s journey to three-time cancer survivor has been a rollercoaster of emotions. “Is this a death sentence?” That question came during the darkest period, after his melanoma diagnosis. But it was UofL Health – James Graham Brown Cancer Center who offered him new hope with immunotherapy.

“Dr. Chesney looked at me and my wife, and said it was his goal to see that I would live until I was 90,” said the 58-year-old Habermel. “Incredibly powerful words to a person who was looking at three strikes and you’re out. In the words of the great Lou Gehrig I now consider myself the luckiest man alive.”

Immunotherapy treatment engages and energizes parts of a person’s own immune system to fight diseases such as cancer. It is typically done by stimulating, or boosting, natural defenses so an immune system works harder or smarter to find and attack cancer cells.

Building on more than two decades of success in cancer research, the University of Louisville and the UofL Health – James Graham Brown Cancer Center are now poised to make further advances in immunotherapy with a grant of $11.5 million from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to establish the Center for Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy (CCII). The new center will develop and improve strategies that use the immune response to fight cancer.

“Our mission is to harness the power of the immune system to eradicate cancer,” said Jason Chesney, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Brown Cancer Center and Habermel’s physician. “This new generation of immunotherapies has proven to increase the survival of cancer patients.”

The five-year grant will also allow UofL to establish the CCII as a National Institutes of Health-designated Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (CoBRE) to support young investigators and develop basic, translational and clinical research at the Brown Cancer Center.

“Thousands of our cancer patients – our neighbors and family members – are alive today because of this early focus on drugs that activate immunity against cancer,” said Tom Miller, CEO of UofL Health. “This grant, and our relationship with the university, mean more people will benefit from life-saving immunotherapies.”

Now among those thousands, Habermel says he’s a champion to all who will listen about the Brown Cancer Center’s advanced immunotherapy options, “I tell anyone who will listen how fortunate we are to live in a time and place that we have the ability to combat and cure a disease that once had an unhappy ending.”

But beyond the research and technology, he credits the entire team with the assist for his survival. “From the moment I walk into the facility, I am uplifted and confident that best hearts and minds in the medical field have my wellbeing as their top priority. From the doctors, the lab staff, the infusion nurses, and those in the reception area, they all serve to make my treatment an uplifting experience. For this, my wife Susan and I are eternally grateful.”

UofL receives $11.5 million to advance cancer immunotherapies