June 16, 1997 12:00 PM

The boss had a cancer with no known cure

TANNED AND FIT, RICK MURDOCK, CEO of a small Seattle-area biotech company, radiates health as he strides down the hall of the University of Washington Medical Center, shaking hands with doctors and nurses who greet him as if he were a returning war hero—which in a way he is. But Murdock is disquieted. “It’s a strange feeling I get every time I walk in the front door of UW,” he says. “There’s a smell that takes me back: ‘Oh, God, here I go again. It’s starting over.’ ”

A little more than a year ago, Murdock, 50, discovered that he had an advanced case of mantle cell lymphoma, a rare form of cancer with no known cure. Doctors gave him 30 months to live. Murdock, however, had a weapon not available to others with the disease. At that very moment, his medical device company, CellPro, happened to be experimenting with a radical new approach to treating lymphomas.

If any cancer patient can be said to be lucky, Rick Murdock was lucky, except for one potentially fatal flaw: CellPro’s system, based on a means of purging lymphoma cells from blood, was still nine months away from completion, and Murdock needed it in two months. “You’ve got to be kidding,” said project head Nicole Provost of the new timetable. Incredulity gave way to urgency mixed with irony. “We’ve got this guinea pig,” Provost recalls thinking, “and he’s my boss.”

Murdock had first noticed a swollen lymph node in his neck while shaving one morning in December 1995. Three days later he found a second lump, in his groin. “I knew this was serious,” he says, “and I needed to do something about it.”

Testing positive for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he immediately started chemotherapy, lost his hair (he had a wig made), then, more alarmingly, his mustache. “Every time I would look in the mirror, I would scare myself to death,” he says. But during four months of chemotherapy, Murdock never missed a day of work. He even went East with his wife, Patricia, 50, and his son Ben, 19—the Murdocks have another son, Jamie, 21—to look at prospective colleges.

Then, in April, after he had weathered three sieges of chemotherapy, Murdock got a wrenching e-mail from Dr. Oliver Press, his lymphoma specialist at the University of Washington. A second biopsy had revealed the deadly mantle cell type of lymphoma. “All of a sudden,” Murdock says, “we went from something we thought was fairly treatable to a particularly virulent form of the disease that is not very treatable by standard therapy.”

When a fourth cycle of chemotherapy proved ineffectual, Murdock pinned his hopes on the still-experimental CellPro lymphoma purging system. The Rick Project team abruptly shifted into a 60-hour workweek. “I think the group felt we were responsible for Rick’s life,” says team member Sharon Adams.

The company had completed clinical trials with a process that produces a concentrate of stem cells, which create new blood cells, from blood or bone marrow. Now, CellPro—and Murdock—needed a way to cleanse the stem cells of cancer cells, so that when the stem cells are reintroduced into a cancer patient’s body they can produce cancer-free blood.

For four weeks the Rick Project came only tauntingly close to purging the stem cells of cancer. But by now, as Murdock says, “it was almost show time.” The CEO was blasted with chemotherapy to knock his blood count down to zero, causing his bone marrow to pump out cells, including extra stem cells. On June 17, doctors at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center extracted three small bags of stem cell broth contaminated with tumor cells.

Then came the crucial procedure to purge them. The broth was run through a column filled with tiny beads; the stem cells were supposed to stick to the beads, while the tumor cells passed through.

But cancer cells in the first bag also made it through. “That was panic time for Nicole and her team,” says Murdock. Believing a chemical reagent had been too weak, the researchers made a command decision to strengthen it fivefold for the second bag. Success! Not a single tumor cell could be detected in the broth.

On July 26, Murdock re-entered the University of Washington Medical Center, where he began intense radiation treatments. For 12 days he lived alone in a lead-lined room, taking his vital signs and giving himself injections. “It was not a pleasant experience,” he says. “After the third day I stopped eating. Food tasted terrible.”

On Aug. 12, following more chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer in his body, doctors transplanted Murdock’s cleansed stem cells back into him. For 10 days his fever rose steadily, peaking at 104. Finally his white blood cell count flickered upward, and the fever began to recede. The stem cells were growing; Murdock’s immune system was making a comeback. He had pulled through.

Three weeks after Murdock got out of the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy confirmed that he was indeed free of cancer. This liberating news at once sent him on foot to a local creek to see salmon on spawning runs. He painted the deck of the family’s brick and cedar house in suburban Woodinville. On Nov. 1 he was back working fulltime at CellPro. “I needed to get back in the groove,” he says. “We were in a big legal battle.”

The latest battle, to add a final irony, is over the cell-separation device that saved his life. CellPro will appeal a court decision this past March in Wilmington, Del., that the tiny company infringed on a patent owned by Baxter International, a giant pharmaceutical firm. But Murdock almost welcomes the legal skirmish. “It’s too early to know if I am fully recovered,” he says, “but the worst thing for me would be to sit around and contemplate whether I am going to relapse. I would rather be in the firefight.”

WILLIAM PLUMMER

GIOVANNA BREU in Seattle

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