Donn Young: A Life Saved by a Clinical Trial

Donn Young

Of all the surprises that Donn Young, PhD, might have imagined receiving for his 60th birthday, a diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer wasn’t one of them.

But that’s what he got. Just a few days before, during a pre-operation work-up for routine back surgery, he had requested a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, which can detect prostate cancer. “It was just on a whim,” Young recalls. “I had no symptoms, but it had been a few years since I’d had a PSA.”

Levels in healthy men are usually less than four; Young’s came back at 78, and a repeat test showed them at 90. As a biostatistician who had designed and managed clinical trials with the cancer program at Ohio State for more than three decades, Young says he had “worked with enough research data and crunched enough numbers” relating to prostate cancer and PSAs to know that something was terribly wrong.

On Dec. 5, 2006 – the day he turned 60 – Young had a prostate biopsy that confirmed cancer with bone metastasis (spread) to several vertebrae, his right shoulder and hip, and a couple of ribs. “Having your prostate biopsied instead of blowing out candles is no fun,” he says, adding that the results were even worse, since there is no known cure for his advanced illness.

Young turned to The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute, where Steven Clinton, MD, PhD, who directs the Prostate and Genitourinary Oncology Clinic, enrolled him in a clinical trial that involves a pair of drugs — one that stops the body’s production of testosterone and androgen, and another that blocks those hormones from binding to tumor cells. The trial was designed to determine whether an intermittently administered regimen of this therapy is as effective as continuous therapy in promoting overall survival.

“This was an equivalency rather than a curative trial,” Young explains, noting that the study opened in 1995 and accrued patients until October 2008. “So it’s taken all these years to find out whether the intermittent regimen is as good as what the standard of care was when the trial started.”

The median survival time for men on this trial is 34 months. Now almost nine years later, Donn is still cancer-free.

“So far, so good,” he says, “but the reality is that at some point this cancer always escapes hormonal control. My hope is that, through this therapy, I can buy a number of years until they can find out why and devise a targeted therapy.”

He knows the only way to make that kind of progress against his and other forms of cancer is for more people to enroll in science-based therapeutic clinical trials that can turn discoveries into innovative treatments.

“I never have been much of a worrier or a negative person,” he says. “I just take each day as it comes and have fun doing what I want to do. It’s always a matter of what you make of life rather than how long you live – but I hope to live a long, long time.”