Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Santa Barbara City College Named #1 Community College in America by Value Colleges

Santa Barbara City College, my first alma mater and a school that I've publicly stated changed my life, has been named the number one community college in the nation for 2018 by Value Colleges, an organization that provides prospective students with a practical guide to the most financially sound investments in higher education.

There are more than 1,700 community colleges in the U.S. offering associates’ degrees, certificates and diplomas. SBCC received its impressive number one ranking after Value Colleges collected data from a number of sources, including U.S. News & World Report and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

“Santa Barbara City College continues to excel in the educational programs we provide to our community. We are proud to be recognized for the work our faculty and staff do every day to support the academic success of our students,” said Dr. Anthony E. Beebe, the school’s Superintendent and President. 

In their analysis of SBCC, Value Colleges concluded that the school is dedicated to building the region’s workforce in services, technology, education and government. 
After an analysis of the data, SBCC emerged at the top of Value Colleges' list for quality, affordability and reputation.


Santa Barbara City College is in fact a shining symbol of what a school can mean to a community. SBCC is Santa Barbara's gem. As fine a school as nearby University of California Santa Barbara is, Santa Barbara City College is a source of great pride to the locals.

Just read some of the coverage of Santa Barbara's recent wildfires and mudslides. Santa Barbara City College transformed from a college to a community center, temporary school, animal shelter, and much more. It became  a real focal point, a central gathering center, a safe zone during this crisis.

It's amazing what we can do with our lives with two simple tools: information and hope. That's what SBCC gave me. Every school matters. But this school is special. The unrivaled natural beauty of its seaside campus, which makes you want to learn and literally makes you want to spend all your time on campus, is exceeded only by the dedication and compassion of its teachers. The best educators I've ever had were at SBCC. Ask anyone who attended. They'll tell you the same thing.


They not only taught me, they inspired me. They showed me I was capable of doing and being just about anything in this life that I wanted to do and be. They also taught me the bitterest pill I ever swallowed: You have to study and work in a class even if the subject matter doesn't interest you. 

In truth, only a few classes didn't interest me, but I excelled in those, too. Because I discovered that life really is about working hard and doing your best even if you're not always fired up about what you are learning. It may sound trite, a cliche', but it still has to be learned. I took that another step, though, and forced myself to find something interesting in every lecture, in every class. I even dug deep to find something of interest in my micro-economics class! Who knew!

I recently signed a contract with the SBCC Foundation to write a book about the school, with a focus on the students, teachers and faculty who have made it great. We're looking far and wide for alumni. If you are reading this and went to Santa Barbara City College, or know anyone who has, please email me at jreno@san.rr.com, or call me at 858-397-4950. I would love to hear your story. 

My days at SBCC: Rebel With A Cause?
When I enrolled at SBCC in the early 1980's, I had ambition, but no real direction. I had goals, but no real plans. The professors recognized my potential, and my frustration. If anything, my problem was that I had too many interests and thus could not focus. 
Everyone who attended, taught at, worked at SBCC is a part of a large family. And I'm especially proud of the school's national reputation for the demonstrably positive impact it has had on minority and low-income students.

SBCC gives students from disadvantaged communities the opportunity to move forward in careers as diverse as music, medicine, and engineering. In recent years, SBCC has expanded its online programs significantly, as well, developing more than two dozen fully online degree and certificate programs in areas ranging from business and marketing to information management and medical coding. 

Value Colleges went through an evidently exhaustive study of America's community colleges before giving Santa Barbara City College the nod. But they didn't have to go to all that trouble. If they'd asked me, I could've told them without hesitation that SBCC is #1. If you think I am biased, well, then you didn't go to school there. 



Tuesday, March 27, 2018

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Smartphone, No Service? PB's Cafe'-Bar Europa Debuts Innovative Phone-to-Table Ordering System

On a sun-drenched afternoon in Spain in 1982, Basilio Ceravolo happened upon a charming café in Madrid called Museo del Jamon (“The Ham Museum”), where whole, aging hams hung from the bar with the pigs’ cleft foot still intact.


A closer look revealed the grease from each ham dripping into cups strategically hung from a hook at the bottom. The grease was then spread on delicious homemade bread and served on request to customers who entered the café.

“I’ll never forget the feeling I got when I walked into that place,” Basilio says. “It was special. The people were so warm and friendly, they were talking to each other in a civil manner about the issues of the day, and just really enjoying themselves and celebrating life.”

Basilio recalls that customers would eat “delicious food and drink beer and wine, but more slowly and in smaller doses than what we are used to seeing in America, and everyone was smiling and laughing."

Two decades later, when Basilio opened his own restaurant/bar in Pacific Beach, he sought to recreate the joie de vivre of those Western Mediterranean bars and eateries he so enjoyed in Southern Europe.

And he's succeeded. Basilio’s Café-Bar Europa, an ultra-hip but super-chill tapas restaurant (and much more), is pure joy.

No hams hang from the bar, but the café offers gourmet dining, drinking and nightly live-music (jazz, blues, bossa nova, folk) in a happy, laid-back atmosphere unlike anything else you’ll find in San Diego.

Basilio, a longtime respected tax accountant in San Diego, has reinvented himself as a bold, creative and customer-friendly restaurateur. A foodie and natural and cordial host, he believes his eatery is popular in large part because it fills an unmet need in the American dining landscape.

The European tradition – specifically the way they literally just stop what they are doing to enjoy the passage of time and enjoy each other -- is gaining favor for many Americans who are stressed out over bitter politics, gun violence and so much more.

Since ancient times, the Western Mediterranean has been described by those who frequent its shores as the “Turquoise Sea.” How appropriate that Basilio’s cafe is located on Turquoise Street, just a couple blocks from the ocean.

There was a time not so long ago when Pacific Beach, known by the locals simply as PB, was not anyone’s idea of a restaurant destination -- unless you consider breakfasts at Kono’s Cafe on the beach fine dining (which on some Sunday mornings I actually do).

But PB has grown up. It has come into its own, especially when it comes to dining. I’ve written about a handful of the fun and funky beach town’s coolest eateries, including Costa Brava, The Patio on Lamont, Ambrogio15 and Izakaya.

But to date I’ve neglected to mention my personal favorite, Café-Bar Europa, which reflects Basilio’s electric and eclectic personality. The café, like Basilio, is one of a kind!

Basilio Forging Another New Restaurant Trend

Already a San Diego restaurant trend-setter, Basilio is at the forefront of a new trend that I think inevitably will catch on in restaurants nationwide.

His latest innovation is called phone-to-table ordering. Sounds simple, right? Well, it is. That’s the point. It’s a no-brainer, actually, but surprisingly hard to find.

Ceravolo rolled this idea out in July 2017, he says, and has worked out the kinks. It’s streamlined now.

Basilio says he brought the system to life because of the unique atmosphere and style of his place.

“It can get quite busy and difficult to take everyone's orders. With this simple technology, our customers can order what they want and they get it right away. We also offer ordering from a cashier for people who don't have smartphones, but we offer 20% off for everyone using our phone-to-table system,” he says.

Basilio explains that about 95% of all his customers now use Phone-to-table and it’s working well for them. “We are able to get everyone served and everyone happy,” he says.

How does it work? It’s actually very simple. You simply walk into the café, pick a table (each table is numbered), then go to CafeBarEuropa.com and click on the “ORDER HERE – PHONE-TO-TABLE” icon, and do your thing.

On the site, you can view the entire extensive menu of Tapas, paellas and entrees, soups and salads, gourmet foods, craft beers, wines and sangrias, veggie and vegan options, and much more.

But no rush, remember? Take your time. Look over the entire menu, because the food is superb and the selections are many. The mushroom soup is the best I have ever had. In my life. It’s amazing. And my wife loves the handcrafted Red Sangria.

Once you've made your choices, just click on each one, kind of like when you’re buying clothes online, and then go to the check out page. they will be delivered to your table.

Online Orders are 20% OFF! That is: 10% off Menu Prices AND half off service charges (10% online vs 20% at the register). The friendly staff will assist you if you have any questions.

The phone-to-table idea is really convenient, and evidently a big hit. “It seems to be taking off,” Basilio says. “People really like it. They also appreciate the fact that they don't have anyone bugging them to order if they don't want to."

Customers are evidently all in.

Says Carina Fleckner, “I can't believe I've been in San Diego for almost three years and had never been there until recently. I heard about it through Mario [Marauak], the Brazilian musician who plays there on Fridays and Saturdays. It's a super cozy place with very chilled atmosphere. When I opened the menu, I couldn't help but smile.”

Fleckner says she especially enjoys the Spanish and Italian dishes.

“Having lived in Spain for five years, I was pleasantly surprised,” she says. “Everything I had was delicious, including the sangria. Yum. I must have spent around five hours there... eating, chatting and enjoying the music.”

Fleckner says she also met Basilio and they talked about the new system of ordering and paying online.

“I loved it,” she says. “It saves you money, since you get a discount, and you don't get interrupted. Not that I would mind it that much because all the staff I met were lovely people. I highly recommend it. Kudos.”

Janine Holman says Café Bar Europa “is truly amazing. I loved spending my evening here. The staff was very attentive and courteous. It was fantastic meeting Basilio. What he and his staff have created truly provides for a magnificent night. Cafe-Bar Europa is my new favorite place.”

Casey Maslakow wholeheartedly agrees, saying the eatery has a “great atmosphere” and “an interesting ordering system that works. It’s an overall great experience.”

Everything Works, But the Live Music is Tops

A big thumbs up for what Ceravolo has done here. He's a very creative guy, and he knows what people like. The food, of course, is the thing. And for my money Cafe'-Bar Europa has the tastiest selection of fine food in Pacific Beach.

But as much as I love the food and the kick-back vibe of the place, the live music is what keeps me coming back for more. There is music ever night (they're closed Mondays).

Legendary San Diego blues man Tomcat Courtney is one of the many regulars, and he never disappoints.

Cafe-Bar Europa is located at 873 Turquoise Street in North Pacific Beach. Reservations are not required for parties of 6 or less, and large party arrangements can be made on the restaurant’s phone-to-table system.

Any more questions? Call 858-488-4200.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Reasonable Gun Control Measures: Reagan Wanted It, Obama Wanted It, Most Americans Want It, But Will We Get It?

Did you know that President Ronald Reagan wanted reasonable, common-sense gun control? So did President Barack Obama. And so do most Americans. President Donald Trump said he wanted it, too, after the unthinkable shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., left 17 people dead and 17 more were wounded. 

But Trump subsequently caved after meeting with representatives of the National Rifle Association (NRA). 

Ironically, even most NRA members support the idea of a nationwide database to track gun sales (which we don't have), universal background checks (which we don't have), a ban on high-capacity gun magazines (which we don’t have), and a ban on assault-style weapons of war (which we don't have).

Back in 2012, just weeks after after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 20 young children and six adults dead, Obama introduced a moderate, relatively inexpensive and easy-to-initiate gun control package that included a new assault-weapons ban. 

But the NRA-backed weasels in Congress did not have the stuffing to support it. 

When the original assault-rifles ban was enacted in 1994, Reagan, who was shot in an assassination attempt in 1981, said, "While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals."

But that ban supported by Reagan expired in 2004. And despite the horror of Sandy Hook, Obama’s efforts to initiate a new ban was quashed by a lily-livered Congress that has been bought by the gun lobby.

But this is a new day. Even Obama didn't enjoy the far-reaching and politically invaluable power of a national young adult movement calling for real gun-control, which the nation witnessed in full bloom on Saturday

Virtually every high school senior who participated in these emotion-packed, oh-so-American marches over the weekend will be old enough to vote in November. And they are registering, and they will vote, as will millions more who were inspired by these marches and by the passion of our kids.

So now that the people of this country really have the attention of the spineless pols, which is precisely how this country is supposed to work, here's what we all can and must do, as a nation, to address these horrific mass shootings and reduce gun violence:

* Protect the Second Amendment, and never take handguns or shotguns away from law-abiding Americans who own them for protection and/or for hunting, but break up and expose the NRA, which is a dangerous, anti-American organization that does not care about human life but only about gun sales.

* Re-commit to President Reagan’s plan to get weapons of war off America’s streets once and for all. Limit high-powered weapons of war to members of the military. Period. 

* Ban all high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. They serve no purpose other than to kill a large group of humans in a short period of time. They are not for hunting or protecting one’s family in the home. They gotta go.

* Adopt federal legislation to mandate background checks, which is supported by 95 percent of all Americans, on all gun buys. No exceptions. No private-sale exceptions. No gun show loopholes. You buy a gun, you need to wait until a legit federal background check clears you. Got it? Good.

* Improve national access to mental health services and intervening in schools and beyond to prevent people with mental illness people from purchasing a gun. Aggressively address the nation's mounting mental health epidemic with free or low-coat mental health clinics in every city.

* Re-establish ambitious national gun buyback programs. No questions asked. 

* Fund and design national gun violence research and prevention/intervention programs and take the reins off of the Centers for Disease Control and let them do their job.

* If a school chooses to have armed security on campus, institute a federal standard of mandatory intense training. Being a member or former member of the military is not a qualification to be a security guard at a school.  The person must pass rigorous shooting tests and also must pass rigorous psychological tests. Anyone who has been diagnosed with PTSD or any psychological issue would be disqualified.

* Do not arm teachers. Preposterous idea. A gun in a classroom puts kids in greater danger on a day-to-day basis. Study after study after study overwhelming shows that more guns mean more gun deaths.

* Modernize ATF and give it some teeth. Get rid of the restrictions on the agency, which at present can't even keep up on gun sales or require gun dealers to make sure no guns are missing. 

* Fund and federally support such responsible, pro-American groups as Every Town and Gabby Giffords' Courage to Fight Gun Violence group.

Let's face it: this country will not likely enact any truly meaningful gun control measures or any aggressive licensing of all guns in America or get rid of weapons of war unless and until Congress and the White House change. There are presently too many wimps on the Hill, mostly red-state republicans such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are bought by and beholden to the NRA.

There've been some 1,600 mass shootings in America since the tragedy at Sandy Hook. And yet the cowards in Washington have done nothing. Those days are over. What we saw in America this weekend was real, and these “kids” are not going away. 
This is their moment. This is their cause. And it should be the cause of every American who cares about the safety not only of our kids, but all of us.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

You Say You Want A Revolution? Cancer Patients Gently Wrest Control of Groundbreaking Immunotherapy Conference



A deep-orange sunrise sky ricocheting off San Diego Bay warmly greeted a contingent of some of the world’s brightest cancer scientists, oncologists, pharmaceutical executives and patients as they arrived last month in Coronado, Calif., to attend the two-day ImmunoTX Summit, a global immunotherapy conference.

Immunotherapy, also known as immuno-oncology, immunology, or just IO, is the century-old effort to harness the body’s immune system to fight cancer. This once-disrespected stepchild of the cancer research world has finally gained respectability, and then some.

Proving the array of skeptics wrong, IO is now being hailed even by its many former naysayers as the most significant breakthrough in cancer treatment that modern medicine has ever seen. There’ve been multiple breakthroughs in just the last year, and the summit addressed the very latest advances.

IO doesn’t yet work for every patient, or every cancer, but the percentages of complete remissions among patients in clinical trials and now in the clinic are unprecedented, for several types of cancer.

IO appears primed to become the so-called fifth pillar among the staples of cancer treatment -- chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, and other targeted therapies -- and will before long likely and hopefully be the dominant one of the five.

Currently the brightest star in the IO sky is chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy -- better known simply as CAR-T. A technology that was first happened upon some 30 years ago, CAR-T involves the body’s T cells, which essentially are our immune system.

During the CAR-T process, these cells are culled from the patient’s blood, engineered with new proteins that allow them to recognize cancer, and reinfused in the patient in very large numbers.

The jacked-up cells proceed to find and attack your cancer, and, remarkably, they persist in the body, becoming “living drugs.”

In August, Kymriah, a CAR-T from Novartis, was approved for a type of childhood leukemia. In October, Yescarta, a CAR-T from Gilead, was approved for B cell lymphomas. And in late January, Kymriah was given fast-track attention by the FDA for relapsed or refractory diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL).

Many more treatments are moving swiftly through the regulatory process, including JCAR017, Juno and Celgene’s very promising CAR-T for aggressive B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which the data show as the best in class, especially in terms of safety.

There are reportedly some 25o clinical trials for various CAR-T technologies, and thousands more for other immunotherapeutic agents and various regimens that combine IO drugs with other treatments.

Scientists and Patients Get the Star Treatment

You couldn’t have spent more than five minutes at the ImmunoTX Summit without concluding that this is a watershed moment in the history of cancer treatment, and a game-changing time for cancer patients. 

The positive buzz at the conference was palpable. And why not?

As scientist and author Neil Canavan writes in his gripping and timely new bookA Cure Within: Scientists Unleashing the Immune System to Kill Cancer, the way we treat cancer is about to change forever.

“This revolution – and it is precisely that – was sparked not by the invention of a new drug but by the advent of an entirely new way of thinking about and managing cancer patients,” Canavan writes. “Going forward, doctors will not use pharmaceuticals to attack a tumor, at least not directly. Rather, the oncologist will treat the patient’s immune system with a drug, thereby enabling it to track down and destroy the cancer.”

Canavan, whose book is currently being translated into Chinese, which like the U.S. is a hotbed for immunotherapy research and development, takes the reader on a compelling journey inside the once-isolated world of immunotherapy research to show the very human side of the scientists who’ve overcome unimaginable adversity to reach this plateau.

These are remarkable human beings,” Canavan, a molecular biologist and scientific advisor at The Trout Group, a New York-based investor relations firm focused on biotechnology, told The Reno Dispatch. 

“The reason these people were all so open with me is that, for years, everyone told them what they were studying was crap. What that did was get them to circle the wagons. They’re a very tight group," he said.

Summit participants included such IO pioneers as Gordon Freeman, professor of oncology at Dana Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University, who was instrumental in the research of PD-1, and Blythe Sather, associate director of Juno Therapeutics, which was recently purchased by Celgene and is at the forefront of CAR-T research.

Others who attended and shared their insights included Scott Durum, who is chief of the cytokines and immunity section at the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, Ling-Yang Hao, principal scientist, immunology biomarkers at Janssen R&D, and Albert J. Wong of the cancer biology program, neurosurgery at Stanford University Medical Center.

Naturally, the science of IO took center stage at the summit. But several invited cancer patients who have benefited from IO, or hope to, stole the show.

In forums and keynote speeches, cancer patients spoke with passion about what immunotherapy means to them, and how this new way of treating cancer, in which the patient’s own body is the drug, lends itself to greater involvement by the patient.

Shahzad Bhat, who’s been fighting a type of B cell lymphoma, was told last October that he had exhausted his treatment options and had just three months to live.

But neither he nor his wife Nicole Bhat accepted that prognosis. One month after he was told he was dying, Shahzad obtained referrals from three different cancer centers stating he was a candidate for Yescarta, which she learned was approved by the FDA just weeks prior to these referrals.

Nicole, who stayed on top of the immunotherapy news, presented a proposal to the couple’s insurance company showing how CAR-T is actually less expensive than long-term chemo or other treatments because unlike chemo, which can last for months, CAR-T is a one-shot treatment.

Shahzad was the first patient to be treated with Yescarta at Stanford since the drug was approved by the FDA, and just the 7th patient in the United States to be treated with Yescarta.

Just after Christmas, Shahzad’s T-cells were injected back into his body. He had only very mild cytokine release syndrome, which is typically the most severe side effect of CAR-T. There was no neurotoxicity.

When they announced during one of the patient forums at the summit that Shahzad was in complete remission, the crowd of scientists, physicians, pharma execs and other patients broke out in loud and sustained applause.

Patients Take Charge of Their Treatment, and the Conference

Several of the patients who attended the summit expressed deep gratitude for the researchers’ tireless efforts to bring these complex ideas from the lab to the clinic, and for the doctors who make the effort to learn about all the latest discoveries.

But Shahzad and Nicole and other patients who attended the conference also expressed frustrations about the sometimes-prohibitive rules that regulatory agencies impose on cancer clinical trials, the price of some drugs, and the fact that doctors are sometimes not aware of the latest treatments.

Everyone at the conference, including the oncologists in attendance, agreed this is a problem, but that it is very hard to fix because changes in immunotherapy are happening literally every day, and doctors understandably spend most of their time with patients.

During the conference’s panel discussion on “Experiences and Perspectives on Real-Life Application of Immunotherapies,” Valerie Frye, an Air Force veteran and two-time gynecological cancer survivor who lost her husband last year to colon cancer, addressed the regrettably small percentage of cancer patients who participate in immunotherapy clinical trials.

She said that if companies want more patients in their clinical trials, the designers of the trials need to stop imposing unnecessary patient requirements, such as mandating that they fail two standard-of-care therapies before being eligible for the trial.

By then, Frye explained, most patients are too sick to meet the other requirements and will not qualify.

“The pace of immunotherapy breakthroughs and personalized, targeted, precision oncology means that the standard design of clinical trials is inadequate and costing stage IV colon cancer patients their lives,” Frye told The Reno Dispatch. “Clinical trials need to be redesigned to be flexible enough to keep pace with genomic and immunological breakthroughs and stop being one size fits all."

Despite her frustration with how trials are sometimes hard to get into, Frye was pleased to attend the conference and learn about immunotherapy and the current research being done.

“Immunology is where many successful cancer cures and treatments will be developed,” she said. “I wanted to meet the front-line cancer research scientists and let them know how important their work is to us patients and caretakers, and the hope they are bringing us. I wanted to thank them.”

Frye said the scientists at the conference were surprised but pleased to see and hear from so many patients. “It was a first for many of the researchers,” she said. “I wore out my brain and Google trying to understand each lecture I attended, but I was fascinated with the topics and the presenters.”

Presiding With Benevolent Authority

The conference was put on by GTCbio, an international communication company whose CEO, Satish Medicetty, a scientist and former pharma executive, wisely brought in Kamala Maddali, a pharma exec and global patient advocate, to help shine a brighter light on the cancer patients’ perspective.

Maddali is vice president, biopharma collaborations, market development and companion diagnostics at Cancer Genetics Inc., a global company that provides complex genetic tests of patients that help physicians determine what immunotherapies to use and how to use them.

A pioneer in the movement to build bridges between patients, pharma and physicians, Maddali is more than just a patient advocate. She has made it her life’s work to bring the disparate pieces of the cancer puzzle together. She compassionately deconstructs, demystifies and humanizes the entire cancer process for all parties. And everybody wins.

“This is a fascinating time to learn and lead as a champion for patients by engaging them in the right discussions with their physicians, pharma, and innovation companies like the diagnostics and the labs,” said Maddali, who presided over the conference with benevolent authority, hosting several of the patient-focused panels and digging deep to get the most and best out of all the participants.

“Patients feel like they want to be champion of their health decisions instead of a listener and a recipient,” Maddali said after the conference,” she said.

With the advancements of social media and the internet, she added, “More and more patients are forming networks and working groups to understand better their mutual journeys and learn from their personalized experiences. Patients and their families are more informed and involved, and now we are giving a voice to patients at science forums, and in doctors' offices”

Maddali added that this approach is not only kind, it's also smart.

“Patients and their support groups are more engaged in and informed about their treatment options and their cancer than ever before, and when this happens, everybody wins,” she said.

Scientists Are People, Too

The scientists involved in immunotherapy, too, are gaining an evidently better understanding of the human element of their work.  

Mike Gresser, chief scientific officer at ImmunGene, a biopharmaceutical company north of Los Angeles, spoke at the conference about an innovative new immunotherapy he is developing called Focused Interferon Therapeutics (FIT), which enables interferon to safely treat cancer.

Interferon was a very effective cancer killer, specifically for patients with melanoma, but it was too toxic for many patients to tolerate.

But with this technology, Gessner explained, the interferon is delivered via a monoclonal antibody, which allows the patient to receive a profoundly higher dose of the drug without feeling the harsh systemic side effects.

Gessner said he was inspired to come up with more effective but less toxic and less expensive cancer treatments after his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.  

While supporting her as she went through surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and endocrine therapy for her cancer, Gresser said he observed how harsh these treatments often are.

“They drain the energy and reduce the quality of life of patients, and can even have strong effects on their personalities, reducing the quality of life of those who are close to them as well as the patients' quality of life,” he said.

Gresser said he is now committed to developing cancer medicines that both increase efficacy and offer much better safety and tolerability.

“Unfortunately, in many cases cancer therapy regimens could readily qualify as cruel and unusual punishment,’ and very likely would not be legal as a penalty for criminals convicted of capital crimes. Patients should not be punished for having, through no fault of their own, cancer,” he said.

Gresser thinks two factors are very important in the patient-empowerment phenomenon that is happening in the immunotherapy sector.

One is the obvious ready availability of information accessible by on the Internet, which he said enables intelligent and motivated patients to “become experts on their disease and on approved and experimental therapies, so they are able to ask informed questions and even challenge their physicians.”

The other factor which is not as immediately obvious, he said, is the “emergence of patient advocacy groups that help inform and give hope to cancer patients, so they can participate actively with their physicians in the design of their treatment regimens.”

Powerful Patient Advocacy Group

One of the most effective and disruptive of those patient advocacy groups is COLONTOWN, a members-only Facebook for colo-rectal cancer patients whose founder, Erika Brown, a former high-powered executive, saw her life take a 180-degree turn when she was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Thanks to Brown, COLONTOWN now has more than 40 “secret” sites on Facebook and covers the gamut for patients, from information to inspiration to humor to updates on new treatments.

Brown, who brought a group of colon cancer patients to the summit, was impressed with how much emphasis the conference planners placed on the patient perspective.

“I'm very pleased to be associated at any level with the farsightedness and intelligence of a conference leader such as Satish,” Brown told The Reno Dispatch.

Many years ago, when she attended her first medical conference, Brown said, “I was told by another patient advocate in attendance that it was our job to ‘stay at the back, don’t ask any questions, don't talk to any of the docs, etc,’ because our presence as patient advocates was not really welcome. How times have changed.”

COLONTOWN’S plucky but loving spirit is embodied in member Deborah Goldberg, who was diagnosed with stage 3b colon cancer in 2014. It progressed to stage IV (metastatic) the following year.

An active member of COLONTOWN, she’s been through numerous surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, but has not yet been treated with immunotherapy. She does not currently qualify as her tumors are not easily accessible. But she hopes that will change soon.

CONONTOWN has meant the world to Goldberg for “providing connections, information and education to empower me to be my own best advocate and help make me the CEO of my own cancer care team, which is comprised of medical oncologists, oncological surgeons, radiologists, palliative care doctors, and more.”

Goldberg said this is essential in a time where the doctor/patient relationship is shifting dramatically.

“Medical oncologists are overwhelmed by ever-expanding treatment options such as standard of care, interventional radiology treatments, immunotherapy, clinical trials, etc. Patients need to educate themselves and be a ‘student’ of their own cancer, and harness this knowledge to participate in and help steer their treatment,” Goldberg said.

CEO Puts Patients First

Jay Roberts, CEO of Cancer Genetics, Inc., which does the advanced genetic tests that are crucially important for immunotherapy patients to know what treatment will best suit them, said the patient is the central focus of his company.

While this may sound like something every CEO in the cancer realm would say, it isn’t. You actually don’t often hear this from companies that do not have direct interaction with patients.

Cancer Genetics is of course not allowed to interact directly with patients or offer any medical advice. But they are one of the several companies that support and complement pharma that are changing the patient-pharma-physician paradigm.

“One of the challenges for us is were asked to provide diagnostics at a very detailed level, and being referred to us by oncologists out in clinical care. The challenge is that providers in community-based hospitals will not fully embrace all the next-generation sequencing and our testing that allow us to think to individual patient where precision is going,” Roberts said.

The Standard of care is evolving, he added.

“More companies like ours and pharma are bringing more knowledge and insight to the care provider. And as these tests continue to improve and become better known, oncologists and pathologists will be more willing to start embracing these new technologies,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the insurance companies are not yet fully on board with all the latest immunotherapy technologies, which are coming at them with lightning speed.

“The reimbursement for these vitals tests is nowhere near where it needs to be for the patients to get the full impact of these new technologies.” Roberts said. “This is an evolving world, as the pharma industry advances therapies that are more focused on the individual patient, they will get better and better at covering these technologies.”

Roberts is a global thought leader and chairman at Driving Insights to Action (DIA), an international forum for all who are involved in drug development and life cycle management to exchange knowledge and collaborate in a neutral setting.

DIA is currently working on providing forums for patients that enable them to talk directly to regulatory authorities and drug developers.

Roberts said DIA just recently launched an advisory committee of patients to “bring collaboration of many different groups together to have a voice at the table. We are still learning how best to bring patients into the dialogue. What we do know is that pharma wants to bring the patient in, across the industry it is becoming more important.”

Doctors and Patients Are Talking Like Never Before

The oncologists at the summit were also deeply engaged and spoke openly and honestly. Dr. Preet Chaudhary, a renowned lymphoma physician and researcher at the Keck School of Medicine of USC who chairs the lymphoma research division and is chief of the blood diseases department, engaged enthusiastically with patients at the summit.

He told The Reno Dispatch in no uncertain terms that times are changing for the better for patients, and the advent of immunotherapy is a catalyst for much of this change.

“Over the years, my patients have always been interested in learning ways to enhance their immune systems to fight cancer, which has been done to some degree with homeopathic drugs. There is always a human inclination for patients to embrace an approach that is more natural, something that is immune-related versus chemo. But we physicians had very little to offer,” Chaudhary said.

In immunotherapy, he explained, the patient’s immune system essentially is the treatment, and “that is something patients intuitively understand and like that.”

Chaudhary said that for the first time in history, “We as physicians feel more confident that we can get the upper hand against a disease as terrible as cancer -- in the form of a cure, or long-term remission, or turning cancer into a chronic disease. We now have much better understanding of the molecular basis of these cancers, and we are coming up with very effective and targeted therapies.”

Chaudhary added that in his practice, the patient always comes first. That is one thing he said will never change.

“I have a simple rule. Call it a creed: The strong always protect the weak. Patients are simply unlucky, and they need protection. If you are a physician you have been given a certain amount of power, and the whole point of power is to make you less afraid. If you use your power only to hold on to that power, and you do not use it to help others, you are lost. For me, the biggest source of inspiration, every day, are the patients. “

Chaudhary, who is currently developing a CAR-T technology at USC that that he hopes will be even safer, with fewer side effects, said he wishes the public knew just how long and difficult the journey has been for CAR-T researchers to arrive at this turning point.  

“CAR-T receptors were first described in 1989, but it’s taken nearly 30 years for this concept to become a successful drug,” he said. “That entire process was painstaking, and it of course had to be funded by someone.”

Traditionally, Chaudhary said, this funding comes from NIH, which is facing the very real possibility of draconian budget cuts under the current anti-science administration.

“It’s important for the public to realize that we as a nation need to invest in fundamental research. We have a roadmap that shows us how to get to the destination, but we are running out of fuel. We need to support this research to get where we all want to go,” he said.

The Big Picture Is Not Lost

GTCbio’s CEO, Satish Medicetty, who created this summit, said the most important thing he learned from the patient-centered panels at the conference was that the physicians are “overwhelmed” with the pace of new information in the recent years and they are welcoming the partnership with patients and other resources to help them come up with the best treatment plan.

"I was moved by the self-empowerment demonstrated by patients and survivors who are helping other patients,” Satish says. “In particular, I would like to mention Nicole Bhat, who has done a tremendous job of educating herself and connecting the dots to eventually find the best and most effective treatment option for her husband, Shahzad. “

Satish said the physicians and researchers at the conference “really appreciated the participation from the patients, who will make sure that the big picture is not lost in the busy details of drug development, commercialization, and the practice of medicine.”