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Pancreatic Cancer Clinical Trial Patient Partners with Hoag to Take Control of His Health

“I think about Jon every day,” Ruud said. “I feel lucky, in a way, to be part of this trial.”

Not a day goes by that Olav Ruud doesn’t think about Jon Engen. Ruud befriended the three-time Olympian cross country racer years ago, bonding over their shared first language, Norwegian, and their love of sports.

The last time they met in 2018 in Sun Valley, Idaho, Jon was battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He died a few months later. Shortly after, Ruud saw his general practitioner in Washington State, where he and his wife lived.

“I told him about Jon, who is 8 years my junior, and asked how do people ascertain whether they have pancreatic cancer? What if I’m willing to pay out of pocket for a CT scan? I’m into preventative medicine, where do I go?” he said.

The doctor didn’t have a good answer. Neither did a hospital in Seattle, where he tried to pay for a CT scan again. Through sheer luck, Ruud was asked if he would undergo an ultrasound that involved looking at a former smoker’s femoral artery. Ruud agreed being into preventive medicine.

“The technician said, ‘Your femoral artery is fine, but while you’re here, I’d like to take a look at the rest of you on the ultrasound,’” Ruud said, still marveling at the serendipity. “I don’t know what would have happened had she not said that.”

The ultrasound uncovered stage 2 pancreatic cancer. The same lethal disease that claimed the life of Ruud’s friend.

From that moment, Ruud has been involved in a series of clinical trials to try to outrun a disease that kills nearly 90% of all patients within the first five years of diagnosis. His most recent efforts have brought him to Hoag in Orange County, to participate in an ImmunityBio trial that uses natural killer cell therapy.

The pivotal QUILT 88 trial uses natural killer cells to activate the patient’s own immune system against metastatic pancreatic cancer. PDL1 t-haNK is a novel NK cell based immune oncology therapy. The Quilt 88 trial incorporates PD-L1 t-haNK, N-803 (IL-15), low dose chemotherapy and SBRT. Early results are promising, and Ruud was excited to participate in the trial with a forward-thinking hospital that is as dedicated to searching for answers as he is.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to survive, and it’s just incredible what Hoag has done here,” Ruud said. “Everyone has done such a phenomenal job.”

Ruud is fit. Nearly 90 minutes after waking up from a six-hour pancreatic surgery, he was up and walking. He did so well, he was able to leave the hospital three days early. He rode his bike 12 miles to and from chemo infusions.

A man like Ruud wants to be in control of his health. Like many clinical trials, the Quilt 88 trial has multiple arms a patient can be enrolled in. Ruud was enrolled in the arm that evaluates the effectiveness of Natural Killer cells, low dose chemotherapy, in combination with stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT). For this trial, Hoag decided to use the new ViewRay MRIdian™ linear accelerator as its radiation tool.

Hoag is one of the only hospitals in the nation utilizing the ViewRay MRIdian, a technology that allows oncologists to pinpoint tumors during radiation treatment in some of the most difficult-to-target areas of the body, including the pancreas.

Unlike conventional linear accelerators, the ViewRay MRIdian utilizes MRI imaging in combination with a linear accelerator, which allows Hoag clinicians to obtain real-time, high resolution images of a patient’s tumor during treatment. If the tumor or surrounding sensitive tissue such as bowel have shifted, the radiation plan can be adapted to match the conditions of the day. In addition, patients can monitor their tumors in real time, control the position of their tumor by holding their breath, and the system will only deliver radiation when the tumor is perfectly in position. This level of precision allows Hoag clinicians to deliver a higher, potentially more effective, radiation dose while sparing healthy surrounding tissue, decreasing side effects.

“After the first [treatment], I realized that I have a lot of control over this,” said Ruud, who has learned how to breathe during the procedure to achieve the best results. “I found being very active in my treatment was not only important, but gratifying.”

Famed author Dean Koontz and his wife, Gerda, donated $9 million to support Hoag’s technological advancements, including the purchase of the ViewRay.

Ruud is renting a house in Orange County as he participates in this clinical trial, which could last between four and 18 months. He said he feels fortunate to have found a hospital like Hoag that is dedicated to innovation and research from some of the most difficult to treat cancers, like pancreas.

“I think about Jon every day,” Ruud said. “I feel lucky, in a way, to be part of this trial.”