RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - If you knew what Rachel Elliot has been through you might call it a miracle that she is alive and well today, but hers was a miracle over a decade in the making.
It was a 2008 diagnosis that resulted in Elliot spending her teens in and out of the VCU Massey Cancer Center.
“I was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when I was 11 and I went through the two-year protocol that most patients do,” said Elliot. “I had a very good response to the chemotherapy, but I had a lot of different issues with infections and fevers and things like that, normal side effects of a child going through chemotherapy.”
Elliot says she went into remission in 2011 and went through high school without issue, but at the start of her freshman year of college in 2015, she relapsed.
“I immediately came home from school and started another round of the two-year protocol, which is much more intense when you are a relapse patient, and at the time my body really wasn’t responding to the chemotherapy well,” said Elliot. “It was a really hard hit on my immune system and I ended up getting a lot of infections which caused me to go into the ICU for an entire summer.”
Elliot relapsed for a second time in October of 2016 before deciding not to undergo any more chemotherapy.
“It was kind of a wake-up moment for my family and we realized we needed to do something different," said Elliot.
After it became clear that Elliot was not responding positively to any treatments, her doctors at MCV pointed her to a new experimental clinical trial.
In 2017, she traveled to the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania where she was enrolled in a CAR-T trial which aimed to use a patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer cells.
After the trial, for the first time in years, Elliot felt as though she was being cured.
“I went back up to Philadelphia and got to infusions of my T-cells that had been engineered to go after my cancer and in the beginning of December, I was able to return home and continue college classes by mid-January of 2018," said Elliot. “It was a really different experience than all of my other cancer treatments and it was quite remarkable.”
This summer, VCU Massey Cancer Center became a certified treatment center for Novartis’ KYMRIAH, an FDA-approved CAR T-cell therapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children and young adults.
“It works by taking your own immune system cells and actually reprogramming them, much like you would do with your phone to be able to have them target the lymphoma, be present in active numbers and be very excited to do that attack,” said Dr. John McCarty, Director of Cellular Immunotherapies at VCU.
Doctors at VCU’s cancer center say this treatment is crucial for patients who aren’t responding to traditional forms of cancer treatment, which can impact the immune system.
“Many of these cancers form because the immune system either can’t see the lymphoma or there are not enough of the immune cells to do the numbers because they are overwhelmed,” Dr. McCarty.
Director of Pediatric Cellular Therapy at Massey Cancer Center, Dr. Christina Wiedl, says this new treatment is a game-changer.
“We’re talking about a patient population that previously we had nothing to offers these patients and now we have an excellent chance at curing these patients long term,” said Dr. Wiedl. “Even in patients that have been refractory to three, four, five prior more rounds of chemotherapy or to transplant previously, are now able to have durable remissions and many of those patients are cured life long.”
Wiedl says each year VCU cancer center has between five to 15 patients that completely relapse from their chemotherapy treatment. She says in the future doctors and researchers hope to collect the immune cells of patients who show signs of being refractory to cancer treatment early on in chemotherapy so that they can offer KYMRIAH earlier in treatment.
“I think the biggest testimony is just the way I felt. I really did feel like I was being cured," said Elliot. “Any treatment you go through, you’re going to feel tired or sick, but I truly felt like this treatment was made for people, like me, whose immune system is really what is being suppressed through the treatment so to be able to build that up, is really what I felt most... bring cured with this drug that was specifically engineered for me through my body.”
“The fact that this is able to work this well in people who have not responded to a wide variety of different therapies, in some cases even bone marrow and stem-cell transplant itself, is the efficacy,” said Dr. McCarty.
According to the two-year data on the durability of response, over 60 percent of patients were in remission at 24 months.
“The Car-T treatment didn’t slow me down in any way,” said Elliot. “I was able to graduate the VCU School of Business and now I’m a young, working professional so it’s pretty amazing.”
“I truly believe that this is a living drug and your immune system has the power to fight anything your body is dealing with and we really need to work to empower it,” said Elliot.
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