Changing the Face of Lung Cancer

Clinical Trials Help Patients Follow Their Passions

James Hiter is a streak runner, which means that every day, without exception, he runs at least one mile. In May 2016 his streak had climbed to 763 days, or just over two years. But that streak was about to end. After being diagnosed with the flu, a precautionary chest x-ray uncovered a tumor the size of a golf ball.

Hiter and his wife, Emily, knew it couldn’t be lung cancer because he was young, active, and had never smoked. But they were wrong, and within weeks James was having surgery.

James recovered, but the cancer returned a year later, so the Harrisonburg, VA, native began treatment under the care of UVA’s Dr. Richard Hall. And he started running again.

“I try to be physically active every day, even when I feel horrible,” Hiter says. “I just feel grateful that I am able to run.”

Today, Hiter’s running streak tops 600 consecutive days.

James Hiter lies in a hospital bed surrounded by his sister, daughter, and son.
Emily Hiter
Biopsy day 2017. James Hiter surrounded by his sister, daughter, and son.

Giving the Gift of Hope

Every year, more people die from lung cancer than from colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. The reason? Eighty percent of patients are diagnosed at late stages, when survival rates are low.

Drs. Richard Hall and Ryan Gentzler lead UVA’s lung cancer team. The duo conducts clinical trials that combine immunotherapy—harnessing the body’s own immune system to fight cancer—with existing chemotherapy solutions. UVA participated in early clinical trials that led to FDA approval of the new combination therapy.

The team is working on a number of studies, including using immunotherapy for patients who are diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer, as well as studies to determine why immunotherapy fails to work in some patients.

“We are building a database to predict which patients will respond to immunotherapy and who will do well long-term,” Gentzler explains. “If you suffer from immune side effects, it might mean your chance of the cancer coming back is smaller.”

The team is also studying oral therapies designed for certain lung cancer patients who have never smoked.

“UVA is quickly becoming a destination for lung cancer research and care,” Hall says. “We’re passionate about giving patients the best options for treatment to improve their quality of life as well as their length of life, for as long as possible.”

Clinical trials give patients like James Hiter a chance to follow their passions while battling illness. In Hiter’s case, he has traded in his job as vice president of a financial services company to become a lung cancer advocate.

“Emily and I attended an international lung cancer conference. What I found were people who were diagnosed at the same time I was, and who had done so much already, while I had done nothing,” he remembers. “It hit me I could change that.”

Hiter and his wife recently launched Streak for a Cure, which raises awareness and support for lung cancer research.

“It’s time for the disease to be funded and treated like all other cancers,” Hiter says. “It’s time for the world to know that if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer.”

Dr. Ryan Gentzler (left) and Dr. Richard Hall stand next to each other and smile.
Coe Sweet
Dr. Ryan Gentzler (left) and Dr. Richard Hall.