LYNCHBURG, VA (WWBT) - We first introduced you to Nathan Norman, who was diagnosed with brain and spinal cancer, back when he wanted holiday cards from public safety officers for what was thought to be his last Christmas. When all other treatments had failed, Nathan's parents turned to an experimental trial medicine.
We were invited to go along with Nathan, who's 8, on his most recent journey to Duke University hospital, where he's been treated since he was just a baby. Our cameras were rolling when Nathan and his family found out if the experimental treatment was actually working.
Early one January morning, instead of watching cartoons with his siblings like most children, eight-year-old Nathan Norman was wheeled from a lengthy MRI to a hospital room at Duke University. Groggy from anesthesia, he managed a smile as he sees his parents running to check on him. The scene, one of anxious grief, is something Bobby and Dawn Norman never expected when their third child was born.
"Dads are supposed to be the ones that fix everything, but when he looks up at you and he's just sitting there and you know he's thinking 'dad I just wish I could feel better,'" Bobby said. "You're thinking 'man I wish I could help you. I wish I could get out my toolbox and bang on you and fix you up.' You know you can't."
Right after his first birthday, doctors performed an MRI and found a brain tumor. Nathan had surgery, but the cancer spread to his spine.
This little boy has been through seven different treatments. All of them failed either because the tumor grew or the side effects were too difficult to endure.
"I know one of them caused bleeding from his eyes, bleeding from his nose, his bottom, various different orifices that just shouldn't happen," Bobby described. "So we had to take him off that. Others have just depleted his energy to the point where he just didn't even want to move."
The family went over the options with Dr. Sri Gururangan.
"It is frustrating when none of those treatments work and then we are scrambling to find new treatments for these children," he recalled.
Around this time last year, the family hit rock bottom. The tumors were growing and there was nothing they could do.
"I was scratching at the bottom of the barrel," Dr. G said.
But the family talked, and Nathan wasn't ready to give up.
"As long as he wants to keep fighting, we're going to keep fighting for him," Dawn said.
The fight moved to an experimental medicine. Dr. G was able to get Nathan on the trial for a drug called AZD 6244. It is a chemical in pill form that targets part of the path the tumor uses to multiply uncontrollably. So far, Nathan hasn't seen any real side effects.
"I love it," Dawn exclaimed. "I love being able to see him be and do everything an eight-year-old boy should."
Nathan has to come to Duke University Hospital every 21 to 28 days to see multiple doctors. He also has to come in for MRIs every eight weeks to check the tumor status.
At his latest visit, we asked Nathan what the doctors are looking for on his MRI. The eight-year-old responded: "To see if my brain and spine cancer has grown or shrunk."
Moments later, the doctor delivered the news no one expected.
"That lesion is gone," Dr. G said. "The spine lesion, on the enhancement, the lesions I don't see it anymore."
"Oh my heavens," Dawn reacted.
Dawn, Bobby and Nathan, who have become so accustomed to bad news, well up in a mixture of tears and bright smiles.
"I was happy, really happy," Nathan exclaimed.
Outside, Nathan's three siblings and grandmother anxiously awaited any word on the test results. Finding the strength to push himself forward in his wheelchair, Nathan delivers the good news himself.
"My results went good," he said smiling. "My tumor is stable and my back, they didn't really see it so they're assuming that it's gone!"
The Normans are now using that sweet moment captured on our cameras to send a message to other parents in their situation.
"Don't be scared of clinical trials," she said. "For us, the thought of a clinical trial, for us your first thought is guinea pig, but it buys you time."
The next step is for the company to take the data from cases like Nathan's and apply to the FDA for permission to treat other pediatric patients with this drug.