Cancer Survivor Saved by Measles Virus Raises Funds for Expanded Trial

PHOTO: Stacy Erholtz, pictured here with her family, underwent an experimental treatment that appeared to leave her disease-free. PlayMayo Clinic
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After battling blood cancer for 10 years, Stacy Erholtz has no signs of the disease, thanks to an experimental treatment that used an engineered version of the measles virus.

Now, a year after finishing her treatment, the 50-year-old mother of three is transitioning from patient to advocate, working with the Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic to expand the tiny trial that saved her life.

"When I was first diagnosed, there was not a lot of options. We strung together 10 years of life with a disease that is typically done in three to five," said Erholtz, who had tumors on her forehead, color bone, sternum and spine from multiple myeloma before the last-ditch treatment. "I'm encouraged. I want people to join me in remission right now."

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Multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer that affects the immune system, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can cause kidney-failure.htm" id="ramplink_kidney failure_" target="_blank">kidney failure, bone fractures and repeated infections.

After chemotherapy and stem cell transplants failed, Erholtz was accepted into the measles trial and given the highest possible dose of the engineered virus, which was designed to attack her cancer cells and leave her healthy cells alone, according to her physician, Dr. Stephen Russell.

"It's been adapted, so that it learned in the lab how to grow pretty efficiently on myeloma cells, "said Russell, who is in charge of the new trial. "It's lost the ability to cause harm on normal cells."

The effects were immediate and incredible, according to Erholtz. A large tumor on her forehead – nicknamed Evan by her children – disappeared within 36 hours, she said, adding that her energy "quadrupled" within weeks and within a few months, all of her tumors disappeared.

"At the Fourth of July parade, my mom and my husband accused me of taking steroids because I was so crazy energetic," Erholtz said. "I was having a great time. They had not seen that kind of energy from me for a long time."

Erholtz was one of two patients given the highest dose of the engineered virus. Both patients experienced some degree of remission but Erholtz was the only one to have all signs of cancer disappear. One forehead tumor did come back in January, she said, but it disappeared after a localized radiation treatment.

Another four patients received a lower dose of the engineered virus, according to Russell.

Now the trial is entering its second phase, with nearly 400 patients on a wait list hoping to have a reaction similar to Erholtz's. But the researchers only have enough engineered measles virus to treat 20 patients initially, according to Russell.

The patients enrolled in the trial will need to meet certain criteria, which include having virtually no measles antibodies circulating in their blood, according to Russell. They will also need to have exhausted other treatment options.

The researchers will have to see if the staggering results from the initial trial can be repeated. They plan to work with one patient about every week, and if the results don't appear to be positive over consecutive weeks, Russell said they'll likely halt the trial with 20 participants. But if the treatment appears to be working, they'll expand the trail to include an additional 17 patients, he said.

Erholtz said she wants to help other patients on the wait list get access to the treatment she received. Beyond partnering with the Mayo Clinic to raise funds for the trial, she also launched a foundation called Viral Village , which aims to stop "the bottleneck" of manufacturing process for experimental cancer drugs, she said.

"I had applied for [the trial] and [been] rejected 18 months before I got accepted," she said. "I had my mind and heart set on the measles trial."

And that trial led to a "beautiful remission," according to Erholtz.

"It's been a roller coaster for everyone as a family, [thinking] 'Is this going to work?'" she said. "We were all excited and we just take it one a day at a time."