Two years ago, breast cancer survivor Meg Hentges felt such burning pain
in her hands and feet that she could no longer walk, write or hold a pen.
The chemotherapy-induced nerve damage, a side effect of cancer treatment,
also denied her the joy of playing guitar, her passion since childhood.
The 54-year old Santa Rosa resident found relief in one of nature’s
most deadly toxins, the poison secreted by pufferfish. Enrolled in a clinical
trial through St. Joseph Health, Hentges received low-dose injections
of tetrodotoxin, the same pufferfish toxin that in higher doses can paralyze and kill.
As she progressed through six rounds of abdominal injections over the course
of a year, Hentges resumed her active lifestyle, taking up kayaking and
photography. She recalls how quickly her symptoms responded to the shots,
which she initially resisted.
“I was scared to try this, but I was in a lot of pain and didn’t
want to become addicted to opioids so I wasn’t taking painkillers,”
Hentges said. “Now I can hold a pen, I can play guitar, I can walk.
It’s improved my life so much. I feel extremely hopeful.”
Now under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, this tetrodotoxin-based
pain medicine was tested in one of more than 20 cancer-related clinical
trials conducted by researchers with Annadel Medical Group and St. Joseph
Health. Along with cancer trials, the team is engaged in testing treatments
for Alzheimer’s disease.
“These are cutting-edge treatments that patients who qualify can
access here in Sonoma County, close to their families and support networks,”
said Kim Young, RN, CCRC, research director for
St. Joseph Health Medical Group. “For many patients, especially older patients who may not have
the means to get to UCSF or Stanford, local trials are a huge advantage.
If we don’t have a trial here, they won’t have access.”
Hentges had suffered from damage to her peripheral nerves, or peripheral
neuropathy, a common side effect of chemotherapy that often gradually
subsides. Some patients, however, need long-term symptom relief.
“About 10 percent of the time, chemotherapy-associated nerve damage
is fairly severe and does not reverse,” said
Ian Anderson, MD, Hentges’ oncologist. To maximize treatment options for this and
other conditions, “we want to get access to pharmacy treatments
well ahead of when they’re going to get FDA-approved,” he
added. “We first focus on trying to cure the cancer, but we’re
also working to ameliorate the side effects of treatment.”
The degree to which the pufferfish toxin relieved Hentges’ pain and
immobility is uncommon, Dr. Anderson acknowledged, with her outcomes being
among the best he’s seen. He cautions prospective enrollees to consider
the risks versus benefits of investigative therapies. “With experimental
drugs, you don’t know exactly what the long term consequences are
going to be,” said Dr. Anderson, a cancer specialist with St. Joseph
Health Medical Group. “A lot of people don’t want to be part
of experimental treatments unless their quality of life is impacted enough
that they’re willing to take a risk.” Hentges’ willingness
to risk paid off in ways she never imagined.
In a YouTube video released in December, Hentges is prominently featured
on classical guitar in a performance with the Dr. Who Fan Orchestra. A
fan of the sci-fi TV series and composer Murray Gold’s score, Hentges
answered an internet based call which drew more than 264 musicians from
more than 20 countries to join this “virtual” orchestra and
St. Joseph Health fosters research to ensure international and national
research trials are available to patients throughout the North Bay.
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