Teacher Retires and Immediately Goes Into Research … As a Pioneer in Brain Tumor Vaccine Trial


Rita Coakley near Lake Hopatcong.

Personalized vaccine uses patient’s own immune cells to recognize and destroy cancer cells

Rita Coakley of Roxbury, NJ, is a pioneer of many sorts. For example, as a fifth-grade teacher at Lincoln Roosevelt Elementary School, she didn’t always make her students read from books. Instead, she often taught them by telling stories related to the topic to make learning more meaningful.

She just retired from teaching – a few months earlier than expected – and now she’s a pioneer in a brain tumor vaccine trial.

The transition happened very quickly. This past April, she and her husband, Leo, were shopping for an outfit for her to wear to a wedding in Belgium. When asked about it, Rita, who can tell you every detail about every special occasion dress she owns, couldn’t recall where she bought it or any other details about her shopping experience.

Her husband immediately picked up on this oddity. He began peppering her with questions … but she couldn’t answer any of them. They went right to the hospital, where she had a CT scan. A day later, she met Atlantic Neurosurgical Specialists’ Dr. Yaron Moshel, a neurosurgeon specializing in complex brain tumor surgery, who informed her there was a mass. “You’re kidding,” Rita replied. She had no symptoms except for the temporary memory loss and recurring headaches she had been having for years. She thought nothing of them.

Dr. Moshel elaborated there was probably a glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. “Brain tumors are like real estate,” he said. “Location. Location. Location. And we can get this one out.”

With her positive attitude, lots of prayer and endless support from her family, friends, colleagues and medical professionals, a week later, the tumor was successfully and completely removed. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed.

“It all happened so quickly,” Rita recalls. “I was off on Spring Break, planning to return to school and retire at the end of the year, but this called for a detour. I never went back to work after the break. I did go back to school for a surprise party given by my students and their parents. It was terrific! Then I retired – and that’s when my career switched from teacher to researcher.”

Now, Rita is one of the first patients enrolled in Phase III of the DCVax® trial. This form of immunotherapy is designed to stimulate a patient’s own immune system to fight cancer.

According to Dr. Moshel, who is co-director of the Brian Tumor Center of New Jersey and investigator on the trial, DCVax is unique. It is a personalized vaccine created by educating a patient’s own immune cells to recognize and kill his/her cancer cells. Rita’s participation in the trial is being administered by Dr. Michael Gruber, co-director of the center.

“Before Rita started radiation, we collected a coffee-cup’s worth of white blood cells and extracted her dendritic cells,” he details. “We then sent the cells and the tumor to a facility in Tennessee. They take the protein from the tumor and introduce it to the dendritic cells so they learn to recognize and kill the cancer cells bearing those proteins. Essentially, Rita’s white blood cells go to boot camp to learn to fight her own tumor cells bearing the proteins. Rita will be injected with the resultant vaccine over the course of the next two and half years.”

Rita and Leo are thrilled about the opportunity to be in this trial.

“This is like an extra insurance policy,” Leo said. “In addition to the normal follow-up treatment Rita will receive, which includes one week of oral chemo for each of the next six months, she will also have the benefit of the vaccine. Even though the trial includes a possibility of receiving a placebo, if her tumor reappears, she will immediately receive the vaccine as part of her treatment.”

Even though battling brain cancer is no picnic, Rita and Leo have incredibly positive attitudes.

“The care Rita has received has been outstanding,” Leo concludes. “Dr. Moshel, the ANS team and Morristown and Overlook Hospitals have been incredible.”

When asked what advice she’d give to other patients, Rita quipped: “Keep a positive attitude and never underestimate the power of prayer. And make sure you have medical professionals who are brilliant. Their knowledge and expertise is paramount. You definitely want that plus bedside manner, but if you have to pick, pick brilliance over bedside.

“And, a few last things: Never lose your sense of humor. Battling cancer is traumatic, and humor plays a critical role in recovery. Take advantage of the support that’s out there. The love and caring from family, friends, co-workers, medical staff and other patients goes a long way on the road back to good health.”