A revolutionary, one-time treatment is giving new hope to cancer patients by treating them with their own immune cells that have been altered in a lab to become cancer killers.
The new treatment, known as CAR (Chimeric Antigen Receptor) T, is a type of immunotherapy that is showing surprising success in at least one Bay Area patient who has battled cancer for more than 20 years.
Jackie Pichon was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma when she was 37. "I've lost my hair so many times it's hard to remember," Pichon said.
The 61-year-old Concord resident does remember when her cancer turned more aggressive – into large B-cell lymphoma – and her doctors ran out of options. They sent her to a specialist at University of California, San Francisco, but chemotherapy there didn't work.
"So when CAR T came into the picture with Dr. Andreadis, he said, 'We're going to try this next and we're going to keep our fingers crossed,'" said Pichon. "And God willing, it worked."
CAR T is a new treatment where some of the patient's own immune cells, called T-cells, are removed and reprogrammed by scientists in a lab to fight cancer. Those cells are then put back into the patient.
"This technology actually rewrites the cell's genetic code, the T-cell code, so it actually can recognize and kill a lymphoma cell," said UCSF Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine Dr. Babis Andreadis. "It's almost like a sci-fi work of fiction to try and make these cells, and it's completely out of the realm of every other therapy we've ever done, not only for cancer, but for any other medical ailment."
Andreadis calls it computer science on the body. Pichon is one of 10 patients in experimental CAR-T trials at UCSF, one of the nation's top medical centers that offers it.
One month after Jackie's cells were infused back into her body, a large tumor on her face disappeared. Then the first scan proved it. "It was completely clean, everything had gone, that was a special moment for me, that was a rare moment," said Dr. Andreadis.
Pichon dealt with side effects, including very severe chills and a week-long fever.
"There's been a scan just about every 3 to 6 months and it shows that they were gone," said Pichon. "So it's very exciting, to be lymphoma-free after 20 years; it's extremely exciting."
More than a year and a half later – she remains cancer free.
"That truly was a medical miracle," said Andreadis.
Nationwide, nearly 300 patients are participating in CAR T trials. It is considered a high-risk treatment, in part because the side effects can be severe and in rare cases cause death. Last fall, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first CAR T therapy for lymphoma patients.
Pichon says she was given 20 years to live when she was 39. She is 61 today and believes CAR T saved her life.
"I think it's a miracle, it's a medical miracle absolutely," said Pichon. "They've been working towards this and I understand it's working with children already, and if it can work with other cancers, I think this is – this could be it."
The CAR T product alone costs more than $370,000 – though insurance does cover it.