LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- An immune cell-based therapy is being tested at the James Graham Brown Cancer Center, and the first patient to be a part of the clinical trial is a Louisville father.

“Somewhere in my travels and over life I got skin cancer somewhere,” Robert Heil said.

Heil was diagnosed with Stage IV melanoma in March 2016. He said a small dot on a chest x-ray at an annual physical turned out to be cancer. The cancer has spread mainly to his chest and abdomen, but Heil is asymptomatic. So far, doctors have not found the original source of the cancer.

He went through an initial treatment, but it didn’t work as planned. So in September 2016, he was referred to the Brown Cancer Center.

Dr. Jason Chesney, the deputy director for the center, approached Heil about being a part of the clinical study.

“I was signed up before they were approved,” Heil said.  “And as soon as they were approved, within a few days, we got things rolling.”

“He really was the perfect first patient for us to put on this clinical trial,” Chesney said.

The therapy is called Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocytes. The deputy director explains that cancer-fighting lymphocytes, white blood cells, are pulled from the patient’s tumor and removed from the body. Then those white blood cells are multiplied so billions of those cells are infused back into the patient to kill the tumor.

"Instead of taking very harsh, unknown drugs and putting it in a body and giving it to 500 people and seeing if we can get a reaction, we're actually going to use my cells at the very molecular level," Heil said.

Chesney describes it as a mini version of a bone marrow transplant. It’s difficult and painful, but Chesney is encouraged by Heil’s progress, strength and determination. Heil even continued to log miles of ride time on a stationary bike during his treatment.

"He went through this process like a superhero,” Chesney said. “He was on a bicycle increasing his mileage the entire time. I couldn't believe it."

"I want to be healed,” Heil said. “I want to live a normal life. But, you know, the partner of trial is error. And you learn as much from the successes as the failures. But it's a great program and great doctors."

Chesney said there are only a few other facilities in the world testing this treatment, which speaks to the reputation Louisville is building in the medical world.

“We just grew our national reputation to the point now where there is a lot of interest in developing these technologies in Kentucky,” Chesney said.

If this trial phase is successful, then FDA approval could be attainable. And there is a broader hope this cell-based therapy will go beyond skin cancer.

"It opens the door not just for patients with melanoma, like Mr. Heil has, but also for patients that have multiple types: breast cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, prostate cancer, you name it," Chesney said.

The trial program is only accepting one new patient each month. But there are plans to expand to more.

For Heil, healing comes one step at a time. He is thankful for the continued support from his family and friends. He credits his sons for being strong young men and taking care of themselves and the home. And Heil is grateful for his wife, Allison, always at his side.

"I have five sons, the oldest is 15, and the youngest is seven, with triplets in the middle, who at the end of the day need a dad to take care of them," Heil said. "And a wife who needs a husband. A lot of people depend on me."

At a checkup on Wednesday, Chesney went over Heil’s recent medical work.

"Your white blood count looks great,” Chesney said to Heil. “Your hemoglobin looks great. Your platelet count is wonderful. You have really no clinically significant abnormalities on your laboratory work, so everything is wonderful."

Heil is expecting to learn how well the treatment is working in a few weeks.

Holding back tears, Chesney said, "My expectation is that the next scan, that I'll be talking to him and his wife and telling them to go home and talk to their kids and say your dad is going to be okay."

For more medical background on the clinical trial, click here.

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