Cancer treatment gives Kennebunk veteran a new lease on life

Mike Delia went through three rounds of chemotherapy and a round of radiation. But taking part in a new clinical trial has given him a new outlook on life.

Cancer therapy gives new lease on life

KENNEBUNK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) - Facing his own mortality, an experimental cancer treatment may very well be the one thing that saves the life of a man from Kennebunk.

Mike Delia went through three rounds of chemotherapy and a round of radiation. Each time the cancer went away briefly, but returned. With no options left he took part in a clinical trial at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, knowing full well only a slim number of trials are successful.

Young or old, just about all of us know someone who has been touched by cancer. A new therapy recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration is providing new hope for cancer patients and Mike Delia is living proof of that. When he found out he had Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, it was at stage 3 and aggressively spreading.

“It was obviously a very aggressive cancer and the chemo wasn't going to do any good anymore, it would keep coming back”, he said.

For 27 years, Delia served his country in the military, rising to the rank of Colonel in the US Air Force. It was his early days flying helicopters during the Vietnam War when his troubles began.

“I happened to be flying special operations helicopters, so I was in and out of landing zones where Agent Orange had been spread around and we didn't know it was a health hazard at the time”, he said.

Mike talks about serving in Vietnam, exposure to Agent Orange

WATCH: Mike talks about serving in Vietnam, exposure to Agent Orange

It was that exposure that likely caused his lymphoma. Decades later the cancer was unrelenting and he was just about out of options. Then his doctor suggested a clinical trial underway at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, using T Cell Therapy, removing the cells from his blood.

“They normally just live with our cancer and not fight them”, he said.

Once removed Mike’s T cells were sent to a lab where they were genetically re-engineered with new DNA giving them stronger protein to fight the cancer. Then they were injected back into Mike. He explains it this way.

“Your re-engineered T cells are like good cops. They're getting put in your body and they're going to go after the bad guys”. he said.

Mike says he's fortunate to have been admitted to the program

WATCH: Mike says he's fortunate to have been admitted to the program

The treatment is giving Mike Deila and other patients a whole new outlook on life.

“Really very seriously thinking about their own mortality and all of a sudden within a month of therapy be able to return to their livelihood, their family, start making new memories”, said Dana Farber's Dr. Caron Jacobson.

How big of a breakthrough is this for cancer treatment?

"This is giving people a second chance, when we didn't have anything before that”, said Jacobson.

 Dr.  Jacobsen oversaw the clinical trial.

“This is going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, I think to see something like this and what it’s going to affect”, she said.

An important benchmark for being cancer free is 6 months. A year and 4 months after being injected, Mike Delia is still in remission.  If he stays that way another 8-months, he’ll be deemed cancer free.

Doctor talks about clinical trial success

WATCH: Doctor talks about clinical trial success

“And I'm hoping it's for the rest of my life, longer life”, he said.

Eighty percent of the patients in the trial responded well to the therapy, with 50 percent going into remission like Mike. It’s only been effective with the specific cancer Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, that Mike has, but researchers are hoping it will eventually lead to effective treatment of other cancers as well.

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