NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - When you visit Al Copeland Jr.'s test kitchen, you know Al Sr. is still his motivation.
“This is him,” Copeland said pointing to a picture of his dad in surrounded by children. “My brother Chris, sister Ally, he’s teaching them how to fry chicken,” Al Copeland Jr. said.
Al Copeland Sr. was not just a father to his oldest son, he was a friend.
He worked side by side for 16 years with his father, and was best man at his last wedding.
Doctors diagnosed the Popeye’s founder with an aggressive form of skin cancer in October 2007. The fight was too much for him.
"Merkel Cell is a very very deadly cancer, it's a very fast growing cancer. A nine month guaranteed terminal cancer. He only lived six," the younger Copeland said.
Al Copeland battled the cancer with the strongest chemotherapy doctors could prescribe.
“He ended up in CCU and ICU and ended up being incubated for three weeks,” he said
Chemo was the only option in 2008. The family traveled overseas for his treatment.
"We ended up going to Frankfurt to get treated and back to Munich to get stronger. He ended up dying in Munich unfortunately."
Al Copeland died March 23, 2008. It was Easter Sunday.
The Chicken King's life was over, but the search for a cure wasn't. The Al Copeland Foundation was born.
“Right off, we didn’t take a breath. We went right at it. During that time of doing research we found doctors in Seattle were leading the charge in Merkel Cell and the University of Pittsburgh was the only place doing research on it. So I said we got to fund local, we have to get this local. That is when I hooked up with LSU Health Science Center,” he said.
The Al Copeland Foundation teamed up with LSU researchers in 2011. Scientists at the Stanley Scott Cancer Center have focused on the prevention and treatment of cancer for almost 30 years.
Dr. Augusto Ochoa is the director.
"At the time this program was open, the prognosis for Merkel Cell was dismal," Ochoa said.
Copeland said first his foundation funded an endowed chair on Neuroendocrine Cancer.
“It’s a gland cancer that was more widespread than Merkel Cell. Doctor Ochoa was connected to the chair.”
Dr. Ochoa said there was a program on Immunotherapy being studied at LSU.
"But we never focused on Merkel Cell Carcinoma until the Copeland Foundation, Al and his sisters, came and said we made a promise to our father that we'd work to find a cure for this cancer," Ochoa said.
Immunotherapy uses the immune system to fight cancer cells. The Immune System is vigilant in your body to find affected cells or abnormal cells. The doctor said abnormal cells have a stop sign, so the immune system says I’m not going to kill the cell it’s normal. Medicines called Check Point Inhibitors cover those stop signs and allow the Immune System to attack cancerous cells.
Copeland said he found out the Immunotherapy was having tremendous success with these types of cancers.
"That expanded us the opportunity to start clinical trials."
The National Cancer Institute invited LSU to enroll patients in the Immunotherapy clinical trial in October 2016.
"Once we opened clinical trials, I knew we were rolling!" Copeland said. "We knew we had something good here."
Ironically, the same month, LSU Medical School Professor Emeritus Dr. Alfonso Vargas was diagnosed with advanced stage Merkle Cell Carcinoma.
"They found tumors in my maxillary sinuses and in my throat," he said.
He was thinking about how much time he may have left. Days or months.
"I knew people died. In Louisiana it was Al Copeland Sr.," Vargas said.
Then, he heard from Dr. Ochoa about the clinical trial. He was eligible, and may have been the only shot he had to beat the cancer.
"Through HIPAA Laws, I had no idea who the patient was and the patient agreed for us to meet. When I met him I knew him, my mother knew him, and my daughter knew him!"
Dr. Vargas had treated one of Copeland's daughters years ago.
Copeland was in the treatment room when Vargas received his second dose of medication. He prayed it would give Dr. Vargas more years with his wife, sons and grandchildren.
"He called me and said I just finished my first scan, three months later, and they can't find the tumors," Dr. Ochoa said smiling. "We were extremely pleased. Dr. Vargas is still tumor free."
The FDA granted approval for this Check Point Inhibitor for Merkle Cell Carcinoma at the end of 2018.
“Today we have 13 trials open from Breast Cancer to Kidney Cancer to Bladder Cancer, Colon Cancer, and so forth. We have two patients cancer free from the bladder trial today. Now we have three patients saved from the clinical program,” Copeland said.
He said to be a part of saving a life is a lifetime achievement award.
“To save three lives and to be in position to save more lives, it’s incredible how that feels.”
If the treatments would have been available in 2008, his father could have possibly survived.
“To be able to deliver that promise to my dad is amazing. Our family feels like we’ve delivered something to him. We delivered the promise and I feel fulfilled about that.”
If you would like to learn more about the Al Copeland Foundation’s work visit their website.