Rachel, Relapsed Leukemia Survivor and CAR T Cancer Gene Therapy Pioneer
Rachel is just 21 years old, but she is one of the pioneers in the field of CAR T cancer gene therapy treatment.
Rachel was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in June 2008 when she was 11 years old. She followed the standard two-year protocol of chemotherapy and entered high school in 2010 in remission. In March 2015, Rachel’s leukemia returned during her freshman year at the College of Charleston. This time, she experienced cytokine release syndrome due to her chemotherapy treatments. Unable to breathe on her own, a tracheotomy was done to insert a breathing tube. She spent 100 critical days in the hospital, finally rebuilding her immune system again, followed by four months of intense physical therapy.
In the fall of 2016, Rachel transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University, which was closer to home and her oncologist. After she relapsed again that October, she and her family knew she could not go through another round of chemotherapy. The traditional treatment was so devastating on her body, that she knew she wouldn't have any quality of life going through that mode of treatment again. She and her family were told to go home and prepare for hospice.
However, there was one last hope. Rachel's doctors recommended she take part in the CAR T trials developed by Dr. Carl June taking place at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia (CHOP). That December, Rachel went to CHOP for the clinical trial and returned home after just one treatment, healthy and in remission, before the end of January without any severe side effects. She has resumed college classes and remained cancer free ever since.
Rachel's story illustrates how important it is not to give up. Clinical trials like the CAR T gene therapy trial are paving the way for more patients like Rachel to live healthy, cancer-free lives.
CAR T cancer gene therapy has seen great strides in recent years. In the early 2000's, cancer gene therapy had a major set-back after a patient (who had a genetic disease and not cancer), passed away from a different gene therapy treatment. After that death, gene therapy was considered a "risky" proposition. The government stopped funding gene therapy research. It was left to small non-profits, like the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy (ACGT), who still believed that finding a cure for treating cancer could be found in the genes. One of ACGT's very first research grants was given to Dr. Carl June at the University of Pennsylvania who pioneered CAR T cancer gene therapy. Dr. June worked on this treatment for many years and then in 2011, published the results of the CAR T clinical trial for leukemia in The New England Journal of Medicine, that according to Dr. June, “exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.” This was a major turning point in treating cancer. Today, CAR T cancer gene therapy is the first ever FDA approved gene therapy to treat cancer. It's success rates are promising and more work is being done to take CAR T therapy to the next level.
The Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy is proud to have played a small part in helping bring this science from the bench to the bedside and is funding even more cancer gene therapy for other forms of cancer. To learn more about Rachel's story and the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, visit http://www.acgtfoundation.org.