Cancer treatment using measles virus offers hope
PEQUOT LAKES, Minn. -- After 10 years of hospitals, chemotherapy, remission and recurrences of her cancer, what is most important to Stacy Erholtz is her faith in God and her ability to go with the flow.
Diagnosed with multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma cells, a decade ago, Erholtz, 50, became a part of medical history last year when she participated in a Mayo Clinic study on using measles as a treatment for cancer. The Pequot Lakes woman is the first person in the world to go into complete remission following the therapy, which dealt her a dose of measles virus equivalent to 10 million vaccinations’ worth.
"I can see (God's) hand all over everything," she said.
It took exhausting all of her other treatment options to take part in the study, however. Erholtz endured high-dose chemotherapy, stem cell transplants and intensive drug regimens, all the while experiencing side effects of the treatments along with the symptoms of her cancer and the rare protein disorder amyloidosis, which sometimes accompanies multiple myeloma.
These treatments did lead to remissions for her, once for nearly three years, but the cancer returned each time. In 2011, she began developing plasmacytomas in her body, which are malignant plasma cell tumors. One on her forehead, which developed into the size of a golf ball, became a barometer for her to know when her cancer was returning. "Evan," as she and her children began calling the growth, would recede in remission, but would show up again often before the cancer showed up in tests.
Erholtz and her family -- husband Mike and children Claire, Eleanor and Oliver -- remain positive and lighthearted despite the stressful and sometimes heartbreaking experience of cancer. Her children were 10, 8 and 7 when she received her diagnosis, so it has been more or less what they've always known. Making light of the situation by nicknaming her tumor, calling one of her drug cocktails the "Star Wars" treatment or referring to cancer sufferers they've met along the way as "MMFs," or multiple myeloma friends, are part of what keeps the family upbeat.
"When we started with cancer, it really is a family thing," Erholtz said. "Everybody in the family has their own way. We all have strong faith in God, and that has been our foundation."
Erholtz also has a tremendous support system in her mother, Carol Carlson, and her best friend, Mary Krmpotich, both of whom accompanied her at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester when she received the measles treatment.
Her journey toward becoming part of the trial began when she and Mike saw her doctor, Dr. Stephen Russell, on the local news discussing his research on the topic of virotherapy.
"Every time I saw him then, I asked him about measles," she said.
According to an article in Mayo Clinic Magazine, Russell began his work on the topic more than 17 years ago, inspired in part by a case of an African child whose facial tumor temporarily receded after contraction of measles. His research and others’ revealed that although cancer cells are adept at proliferating throughout the body, they are not as well equipped as healthy cells to ward off viral infection.
Armed with this knowledge, researchers at Mayo engineered measles virus that is strong enough to attack cancerous cells but too weak to affect healthy ones. The hope is in the future, this treatment could be used for all types of cancers, even the most aggressive and deadly types.
In spring 2013, Erholtz was accepted into the trial after her last round of stem cell transplant failed to keep her cancer in remission. Hooked up to a pump, she was infused with the engineered measles virus over the course of a half-hour.
"The instant I was connected, I felt something," she said.
During the infusion, she developed a dry cough and intense headache and asked to receive antihistamines, a step that is now part of the procedure for patients. Afterward, she became very sick for about five hours in the hotel room while her mother and Krmpotich looked after her. Her arm swelled up to twice the size as normal around the injection site, a side effect that has happened to a few other patients as well.
Still, Erholtz described the measles infusion as "by far the easiest treatment" she'd ever done. Within 24 hours, "Evan" began to disappear, and eight weeks later, the measles virus was still present in her body, but her cancer was gone.
"You can compare it to child labor," she said. "Your memory of (the pain) is gone, and you're willing to do it again."
Four months later, she visited the lab where the treatment was developed. While posing for photos with Russell, she recognized the names on a plaque honoring the benefactors whose donations have helped make the lab's work possible since 2005. The names were Al and Mary Agnes McQuinn, who have a lake home on Gull Lake. Erholtz knew the couple through her work at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa.
The McQuinns received updates on the lab's progress in clinical trials, but learned of the patients only by the numbers they'd been assigned. Erholtz was Patient 11.2, and the McQuinns were some of the first to know of her amazing results.
Erholtz told Mayo Clinic Magazine that she called the McQuinns and left a voicemail: "Hello, Mr. and Mrs. McQuinn. This is patient 11.2. Please call me. I would love to talk with you."
When the meeting between them took place, Erholtz said it was difficult to describe "the emotion and joy that accompanied our getting together and sharing."
Months later, the rest of the world knew of the first major breakthrough in the trial as well. In May, Erholtz's story was splashed across major newspapers and national networks, many of the outlets trumpeting the possibility that a cure for cancer had been discovered.
The trial is still in its early stages, however, and it will likely be years before enough evidence is gathered to obtain Food and Drug Administration approval.
"(The attention) really has been a positive thing," she said. "Maybe I'm a miracle, and it's not going to work for anyone else, but I'm not thinking of it that way. ... Let's be optimistic. Let's go for it."
She's using the viral attention her viral treatment received to highlight the need for manufacturing. Currently, the Mayo Clinic is the only place producing the treatment, and it takes several months to make only a few doses. The next phase of the trial begins in August and there are eight doses, with more than 350 people on the waiting list.
Erholtz is working to launch a foundation, Let's Go Viral, which will raise awareness and collect donations to support manufacturing.
"There is a lot of pharmaceuticals interested in picking it up," she said. "I want people to know that maybe there is a future of treating cancer that isn't so horrific. I think medicine is on the verge of that."
Erholtz did have a recurrence of cancerous cells this past January, which she noticed with the return of "Evan." When tested, the cancer showed up in her blood, but not her bone marrow, where it typically presents. This was a huge step forward in her eyes and the opinions of her doctors, and this time, three weeks of mild radiation treatment was enough to get rid of it again.
"I live in the moment, and right now, I don't have cancer," Erholtz said. "God keeps extending my time."
How to donate to Let's Go Viral
To donate to Stacy Erholtz's foundation, Let's Go Viral, visit www.communitygiving.org and click "Donate." From there, select the fund name on the list and enter the contribution amount.
Donations also can be made by calling Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation Director Bill Brekken at (218) 232-0257.
A portion of donations will go directly back to the local area.