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Thursday, December 16, 2021 2:12 PM

Valley man with leukemia sees “phenomenal” results after clinical research study

Innovation & Technology
Access to Care
Advancing Clinical Quality

When Paul Wilson found out he had a form of leukemia that strikes mostly older people, a friend who also had cancer urged him to seek treatment outside the Valley. “He told me, ‘The only place you can go for leukemia is Stanford. They are the authority,’” says Wilson. “I thought about it and I prayed about it.”

And he followed the voice in his head and heart that told him to stick with his primary care doctor’s recommendation to go to Community Cancer Institute, just 20 minutes from his home. He’s glad he did. He says his prayers were answered in the form of hematologist and oncologist Dr. Haifaa Abdulhaq, a Community Medical Oncology Specialists provider.

Dr. Abdulhaq, clinical professor and director of hematology at UCSF Fresno, and director of UCSF Fresno’s hematology oncology fellowship program, enrolled Wilson, 79, in a clinical research study specifically for chronic lymphocytic leukemia, also known as CLL. The new protocol adds a third chemotherapy drug to the traditional treatment of only two. And after just two treatments, Wilson has had phenomenal results.

Paul Wilson rides his bike down the street on a sunny day with blue sky and clouds in the background

40-year partnership provides faculty experts and research

In addition to training medical residents and fellows and attracting faculty physicians, Community Health System’s long-standing partnership with UCSF Fresno gives local patients access to high-quality, affordable care and clinical research studies and treatments.

UCSF Fresno medical residents and faculty are currently involved in 364 active research studies and have 99 going through approvals to start. Among those studies are 47 related to the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of COVID-19, and many that revolve around Central Valley health issues like Valley Fever, pre-term births and links between pesticides and certain diseases. Because of UCSF Fresno’s reputation for doing rigorous research, COVID-19 patients in Community’s hospitals had access to life-saving remdesivir medication before it was approved for wide use by the FDA.

Most of the trials available to patients at the Cancer Institute are cooperative group trials where academic medical centers combine their research results to reach faster conclusions for better, faster care to patients. “Cooperative trials are very well-thought-of clinical trials, especially by leaders in the field,” explains Dr. Abdulhaq. “And you really have a chance of changing the standard of care for patients, but these are not very well supported financially,” unlike clinical trials paid for by pharmaceutical companies.

Dr. Haifaa Abdulhaq looks at a chart with a UCSF resident

She adds, “We are able to run these clinical trials because we are affiliated with UCSF, but also because this research is supported by Community Medical Centers. [Community] actually gives a huge amount of support for these trials. You cannot do this kind of research as a doctor without a team and the collaboration between the research coordinator and the hospital.”

Clinical trial was a natural fit for leukemia patient

Such research support means Dr. Abdulhaq can offer her patients more choices in their cancer care. She’s currently lead investigator on 10 clinical trials.

Wilson says he didn’t hesitate to say yes when asked about clinical trials. “When Dr. Abdulhaq started talking about a research project, I liked that because that’s what had been paying my bills for years.”

Wilson explains, “I was in aerospace research for 30 years doing project managing at a jet propulsion laboratory.” As a specialist in manufacturing and process engineering, Wilson helped work on NASA’s space shuttle and satellite technology. He was used to blazing trails.

“I just felt like, ‘Why go to the same old, same old when, you know, we don't have a cure and there's always the possibility of something new presenting an opportunity — and not just for me, but also for everybody else.” That last part was really important to Wilson: “I said, ‘If you guys don't take this and do everything you can with it to help other lives, I'm not participating.’”

Unexpectedly fast improvement with new leukemia treatment

When Wilson’s primary care doctor first discovered his chronic lymphocytic leukemia, they just watched it by doing regular blood cell counts. When his white cell count got to 9,000 — well over normal — Wilson says he was referred to an oncologist specializing in blood cancers.

His first oncologist told him, “We’ll never be able to get rid of the cancer because you’re missing this chromosome that’s called a 17P,” describes Wilson, who wanted to stick around and be healthy for his wife of 40 years as well as his 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “He came back with an alarming white blood cell count, as if the end was coming. I wouldn’t accept it, so I just changed doctors.”

Dr. Abdulhaq offered him hope with the CLL research studies in which she was involved.

CLL patients generally aren’t treated until they begin experiencing significant symptoms of fatigue, fever, chills, weight loss and/or anemia.

“We used to be happy to just decrease the white count and make the people feel better,” Dr. Abdulhaq says of CLL treatments. “But we’ve realized if we can get a deeper level of response, we can get to a ‘negative residual disease’ state. And we see patients do better in the long term with sustained remission and they can live without the cancer for much longer.”

She normally hopes to see results within a couple of rounds of chemotherapy, “but with Mr. Wilson we saw an immediate result. His white count is now normal and he already has improvement in his energy.”

“My doctor said he’d never seen anybody that had a white blood cell count of 166,000 go down to 6,500 in his life,” says Wilson. He started feeling so good he went back to riding his bike four to six miles almost every day in his Fig Garden neighborhood.

Wilson credits his progress in part to prayer, regular exercise and his attitude: “I keep a positive attitude, or at least I work at making sure I don’t walk out the front door a grump. That’s giving the medicine a chance to work. I just kind of go with the program and trust and be positive.”
He’s grateful he trusted his prayers, stayed in Fresno for treatment and found the right investigative oncologist. “I trust her intuitive skills and her knowledge. She can put any computer to shame when it comes to analyzing things and figuring out what to do,” Wilson praises Dr. Abdulhaq.

Community’s Commitment to Making Care Accessible
Our mission of improving the health of our region is dependent on continually enhancing our medical expertise and investing in research and technology so everyone, regardless of their circumstance, has access to top-level care. We aim to rank among the nation’s top hospitals in delivering measurable quality care and investing in best practices and innovative technology. Read more stories.