Durham County

His father died from prostate cancer. Now he’s helping Duke find a possible cure

Paul Gomulinski rested his right elbow on a chair inside Duke Cancer Center as an IV pumped copper into his arm.

He is the first patient to be treated by the Poley Protocol, an experimental treatment for prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is the third leading cause of cancer death in men in the United States. Nearly 1 in 7 men will develop it, and an estimated 26,730 men will die from it this year.

Gomulinski, a retired teacher and high school basketball coach, was diagnosed when he was 58. He will receive two more doses of IV copper over the next two weeks. After that he will take oral copper tablets for the study.

A Duke research team led by Dr. Daniel George, discovered the theoretical basis for this treatment in 2012, publishing peer-reviewed findings in 2014.

But Gomulinski almost missed out on the experimental treatment.

The study initially needed $100,000 to treat the first patient. Research halted when it couldn’t get a research grant for clinical trials.

‘What’s wrong?’

Sam Poley was eating dinner with his wife and three kids in 2012 when the phone rang at 6:30.

It was his father. Poley immediately asked, “what’s wrong?”

Neil Poley had gone in for a routine checkup which later revealed stage four prostate cancer.

Poley’s parents moved to North Carolina from Lexington, Kentucky, to be closer during treatment. His father became one of George’s patients.

Neil Poley underwent chemical castration at Duke, stopping production of testosterone that the cancer depends on in early stages.

“The hormone therapies worked perfectly and shut the cancer right down, stopped it dead in its tracks,” Poley said.

But losing testosterone also robs the body of muscle mass and bone density. Poley felt his father grow smaller in his arms as he hugged him over the years.

Over time, Neil Poley’s cancer grew less dependent on testosterone and he required higher-risk treatment.

He was 77, with type two diabetes.

“For someone like my dad, chemo is basically a death sentence.”

Then Poley found research from George and his team online.

A new strategy

Prostate cancer cells need copper, so George’s team first tried to stop copper from getting into the prostate. That proved too difficult and harmful.

The study then tried another strategy: flood the prostate with copper and find a drug that will kill the cancer cells containing the injected copper.

The found Disulfiram, a drug used for decades to treat alcoholism with few side effects.

Better yet, Disulfiram doesn’t harm healthy cells. This treatment could be a better option than chemotherapy for older or unhealthy patients.

“That’s what I like really like about this one, because it’s low toxicity,” George said. “When we think of ways like this that are really separate from all the chemotherapies or hormonal therapies, I think it’s really exciting.”

But because Disulfiram is a generic drug, pharmaceutical companies had little incentive to study this new use.

Frustrated, Poley set out to raise the money himself.

“We are not a family of means, but if there is a life-or-death situation and we need to get our hands on $100,000, we can figure it out,” Poley said.

“It’s ludicrous to me that for (relative) pocket change they couldn’t start this trial.”

‘Give 1 for Dad’

Poley created “Give 1 for Dad," asking would-be donors “How much is your dad worth to you?”

The campaign asks people to donate just 1 percent of one day’s salary. Its website can calculate your donation, typically $3 to $5.

In the first 10 months, Poley was able to raise $60,000 – enough for George to begin treating Gomulinski, the first patient.

The study has since received $400,000 from the V Foundation for Cancer Research, funding from the Peter Michael Foundation and partnered with a small pharmaceuitcal company that is producing the copper IV.

Neil Poley died July 4, 2015, long before funding came in.

“We knew within weeks of (hearing about the study) that my Dad was going to die,” Sam Poley said. “But my dad was a brilliant guy. He has 13 patents to his name, and was never without something to study.”

Before he passed, Neil Poley insisted that his son continue fundraising.

“Give 1 for Dad” has raised $468,000 to date.

Gomulinski hopes to be the first of many to prosper under this treatment.

“I didn’t know who Sam was until a week ago when I met him for the first time,” he said. “I know this treatment is in honor of his father, and I feel like I don’t want to let him down.”

Gomulinski isn’t someone who “wants to feel sorry for himself,” and he’s adopted a new catchphrase with Poley: “Let’s go get ‘em.”

The study is looking at three kinds of prostate cancer: neuroendocrine prostate cancers and castration-resistant types that have spread to bone or the liver.

The study is expected to last until 2022.

George hopes the findings help treat people with other types of cancers.

Sam Poley will be hosting the Big Biscuit Showdown from 6-9 p.m. Thursday, July 27, at the Rickhouse, 609 Foster St, in Durham. Tickets are available at bit.ly/2v0CbAh in advance. All proceeds will go to “Give 1 for Dad.”

Sean Jones: 703-955-6959

How to help

Sam Poley will be hosting the Big Biscuit Showdown from 6-9 p.m. Thursday, July 27, at the Rickhouse, 609 Foster St, in Durham. Tickets are available at bit.ly/2v0CbAh in advance. All proceeds will go to “Give 1 for Dad.”