Bringing Hope to others
PEQUOT LAKES - She was known as Patient No. 11.2 in a dramatic medical story that emerged from a clinical cancer trial at the Mayo Clinic where she was injected last summer with a massive dose of a genetically modified measles virus manipulated to kill cancer.
The infusion, which could have provided enough measles virus to vaccinate 10 million people, miraculously worked. The multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, was gone, in remission after her 10-year battle with the disease.
She became the second person in the world to receive such a high dosage and the first to achieve remission in a treatment approach referred to as oncolytic virus therapy - a treatment which has been generating a lot of interest and excitement in cancer research.
But her story doesn't end there. In fact, it is simply a new beginning.
Stacy Erholtz, a Pequot Lakes wife and mother of three and cancer patient for 10 years, has now become a cancer activist.
When word rapidly spread in May that she was Patient 11.2, her name and photograph were splashed across newspapers, magazines and on television news programs throughout the world. Her story had gone viral, and she decided to use this experience to help others receive the same treatment as she did.
She recently started a foundation, "Let's Go Viral," through the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation to raise money to support the manufacturing of the measles virus treatment she received at the Mayo Clinic.
The next phase of this clinical trial begins in August. There are 15 doses available for the trial, yet there are 350 people on the waiting list, Stacy said. It takes three to four months for researchers to generate just three to four doses of the measles treatment in their existing lab, Erholtz explained. She is hoping to eliminate that manufacturing bottleneck to help others, like her, who have exhausted all other treatment options. The measles treatment approach is being looked at closely to be potentially used to treat a variety of other cancers, including lung, brain, head and neck and ovarian cancers, said Erholtz.
"I'm really excited about it, not for myself, but I want some multiple myeloma measles friends," Erholtz said with a smile. "I've had a dose, and you can't be redosed. It's time for other people to have a dose. It's a giant step forward for cancer. Let's get it out there. Let's put some money behind it and get it out there."
Erholtz will be speaking about her experience at the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation Annual Dinner July 24 at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa.
Erholtz was 40 when she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in May 2004. About five years ago she happened to spot her Mayo doctor, Dr. Stephen Russell, on a TV news story about how he had been working on a measles vaccine.
"Once I saw it on TV, I made up my mind that I was going to do the measles trial," said Erholtz. "It was just a matter of when."
About 2-1/2 years ago Erholtz was rejected for the trial because she hadn't yet failed all her other treatment options, a requirement. So she underwent a second stem cell transplant in August 2012, which took three months to recover from and yet only yielded a six-month remission.
However, it meant she could now qualify for the measles trial.
Since it was a conflict of interest for her to talk about joining the trial with her doctor, who headed the trial, she was sent to see Russell's clinical trial colleague, Dr. Angela Dispenzieri, last summer and was given two options, a new drug therapy or the measles infusion. Her decision was made long before she learned about either option.
"I had absolute confidence in their abilities. They had cured a mouse named Sally, and if they cured a mouse, why not me?" Erholtz said.
She underwent the nearly 40-minute infusion on June 5, 2013, and instantly could feel that something was happening. She suddenly developed a massive headache and a dry cough as her body took on 100 billion units of measles. They stopped the infusion for a short time to give an antihistamine, which is now part of the protocol for the procedure.
About 20 minutes after the infusion, she spiked a 105-degree fever, a good sign. The only other adverse side effect was that the vein in her arm swelled, along with her entire arm, for about three days, but Erholtz considered all of this minor in comparison to the side effects of her two stem cell transplants.
"Out of all my treatments, this was pure remission," said Erholtz. "I had the best energy."
Thirty-six hours later, the golfball-sized tumor growing from her forehead, which the family nicknamed "Evan," was gone. "Evan" had become a barometer for how well her cancer treatments were working, often disappearing during remissions and reappearing even before the multiple myeloma would be discovered again on tests.
The modified measles virus also contained an extra gene, taken from a human thyroid gland, which created a protein that would move radioactive iodine into the cancerous cells. This allowed researchers to track the measles virus within Erholtz's body and allowed them to watch how, over time, the measles virus was eradicating the cancer cells using a SPECT-CT scan.
Seven weeks after the infusion, the SPECT-CT scans indicated no signs of cancer. Last September, Stacy was asked to tour Russell's lab. She posed for a photograph by a plaque with familiar names: Mary Agnes and Al McQuinn. The couple was the benefactors who funded Russell's work, and Erholtz knew them. She had been friends with their son, the late Charles McQuinn, and lived not far from the Gull Lake residents.
So Erholtz decided to personally thank the McQuinns, longtime Mayo Clinic supporters, and called them the next day. The McQuinns had known that Patient No. 11.2 had responded well to the measles virus, but didn't know who she was until Erholtz called them. The two families soon met for brunch.
"There was joy on all sides," Erholtz said. "It was really sweet."
While "Evan" returned this spring, along with one other plastmacytoma, a malignant plasma cell tumor, doctors found that the cancer was isolated to the two tumors, rather than found in her blood. Doctors used a low-dose of radiation in March on her skull and forehead to eliminate the tumors, which have not returned. She had tests in June, and she was cancer-free.
She is currently on no medication and said even the whites of her eyes are white again.
She and her husband, Mike, have three children, Claire, 20, a student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks; Eleanor, 18, a 2014 Pequot Lakes High School graduate who is currently Miss Nisswa and will attend Bethel University in the fall; and a son, Oliver, 17, a PLHS senior.
Their children were 7, 8 and 10 when she was diagnosed. While many of her friends dreaded turning 50 this past year, Erholtz embraced it, having celebrated her 50th birthday last Nov. 7.
"I choose to live in the moment," said Erholtz. "God is at work here, and I want people to have the same experience I've had."