A Dendritic Cell. It fills me with wonder that the different cells that make up the human body all seem to have their unique function and intelligence; each getting on with its job independently of our will or volition.

My Choice

I first read about Dendritic Cell Vaccine a couple of years after being diagnosed with cancer but the treatment was only available in the Bahamas and the price was well beyond my reach. The science behind it, however, really impressed me. In very simple terms Dendritic cells are part of the body’s complex immune system. Their function is to recognise, and present to the T cells, those cells that might do harm to the body for destruction. They would seem to educate the immune system. In cancer patients the number of dendritic cells seems to be reduced and they don’t seems to work as effectively as they should. Dendritic vaccine therapy involves extracting monocytes, a subset of white cells, from the patient. These are then cultured in laboratory conditions to produce dendritic cells and in some cases are stimulated  with the patients own tumour antigens. The dendritic cells are then injected back into the patient, improving the ability of the patient’s immune system to recognise and destroy their cancer cells.  Doctors giving this treatment to patients have had very impressive results and I found it reassuring that one of the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 2011 was awarded the scientist who first identified and researched the function of Dendritic cells, Ralph Steinman.

Dr. Julian Kenyon at The Dove Clinic suggested that I have the therapy after it was clear that the cancer had invaded my lymph nodes. It wasn’t going to be cheap and it was not available in the UK so I would have to travel to Germany for treatment. I had always viewed my cancer as a symptom of an immune system that was no longer able to recognise and destroy harmful cells and this was the first treatment I had come across that seemed to offer a way of helping to repair my immune system. I also trusted Dr. Kenyon’s advice, so I decided I would find the money, and go ahead and have the treatment.

My Experience

The process of organising my treatment wasn’t entirely straight forward but here is the essential information: Dendritic Vaccine Therapy involved six trips to Germany. The first time I went to Duderstadt to the Institute for Tumour therapy  to see Dr. Thomas Nesselhut. I was referred by Dr. Kenyon but made the appointment myself over the phone. I found the easiest and cheapest way to get there was to fly with Flybe from Southampton direct to Hannover. I then took the train from Hannover airport to Hannover central where I changed and got another train to Gottingen. The train ticket for the entire journey can be bought from a machine on the train platform at the airport. From Gottingen it was about a 45 minute taxi drive to Duderstadt. The most comfortable hotel to stay in Duderstadt is the Zum Lowen. This was full when I went and, as I was on a budget, I opted for one of the cheaper hotels. Duderstadt is a sleepy German medieval town and there isn’t much to do so a few good books are essential.

On the first visit Dr.Nesselhut extracts the monocytes by a process called Leukapherasis. This involves an intravenous line being inserted into both arms. The blood flows out of one arm into a machine where it is spun around and where the white cells are extracted. The blood then flows back into the other arm. I was rather nervous about this procedure, as I had been told not to have any needles or injections in the arm where the lymph glands had been removed, but Dr.Nesselhut reassured me that it would be safe to go ahead.  The process for me was painless and I even managed to watch a film, Revolutionary Road, during the three hours that I was attached to the machine. At the end of the process the nurse showed me a bag of pale-pink coloured liquid. This was the white blood cells that  had been extracted by the machine. The cells are then taken to a laboratory where the dendritic cells are extracted and the vaccine is prepared. This takes a week.

I had decided to stay in Germany for the week and have hyperthermia treatment each day with a Dr.Martin in Gottingen. The vaccine would be sent to Dr.Martin on my last day and he would inject it. I did find the injection of the vaccine quite painful. It is injected beneath the skin and according to Dr. Martin if it doesn’t hurt he hasn’t done it right ! A second injection of interferon follows. This stops the body rejecting the dendritic cells and it leaves a stinging sensation which quickly wears off.

The vaccine did produce side effects. For about 48 hours after I experienced intense flu like symptoms. I had headaches, a high temperature and was very thirsty. I hardly slept for two days after the vaccine. I also had a shaking sensation which is called rigour. I travelled back the day after the vaccine and then rested a day before going back to work.

I had four more vaccines at monthly intervals in Germany. Each time I experienced the same symptoms.

Top Tip

After your blood has been taken it takes at least a week to prepare the vaccine. If you are not going to have hyperthermia while you are waiting and can afford a break, then a visit to Berlin or Leipzig via the excellent German train system is a real treat. I think it is really important to have positive things planned while you are having treatment for cancer. Combining treatment with a holiday is an ideal opportunity. I don’t speak German and I travelled on my on own for treatment after my first visit. I found it easy to get around and the medical staff were very helpful.