Tori Lee was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), a blood cancer of very a aggressive form, when she started kindergarten in 2008. Immediately after the horrifying news, she started chemotherapy. Sadly, the chemo didn’t work, and the cancer persisted.
According to her mother, Dana Lee, Tori underwent chemotherapy for almost two years before relapsing to the cancer after which they signed up for more intensive treatments such as radiation and stronger chemotherapy. The cancer, unfortunately, still lived on.
Not Responding to Chemotherapy
As the treatment started making Tori weaker and weaker with each round, her parents had to search for a more sustainable treatment procedure. Tori’s doctor recommended a bone marrow transplant, a very complex procedure with great risks and which requires weeks of chemotherapy to prepare for it.
Tori was taken to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) where her bone marrow transplant was to be performed, but right before going there, Tori’s doctor collected some of her T cells for a backup plan which they had devised for her in case Tori fails to undergo the transplant because of her deteriorating condition. The T cells collection would allow Tori to participate in an experimental treatment program CAR T.
How does the CAR T work?
The CAR T works with a patient’s own immunity cells. It takes the cells, reprograms them on the genetic level to kill the cancer, and puts the cells back in the patient’s body to fight the cancer cells. The doctors were hopeful that this would work as, only a few months back, another girl, Emily Whitehead, was also cured through this treatment and she also suffered from the same form of leukaemia as Tori.
Tori’s mother, Dana, reached out to Emily’s parents to get insight about the treatment. She wanted to avoid putting Tori through a bone marrow transplant if possible considering the harshness of the procedure, but she feared the CAR T as well because many girls after Emily had undergone the procedure and died.
Tori was the tenth person to be administered the treatment, and this fact made Dana very nervous. But, to allow Tori access to the best available solutions, she signed up for the treatment.
Tori was injected with the modified version of her T cells in April 2013, and the results were phenomenal. Only after six weeks, the cancer was in remission, and after four-years, Tori was cancer-free. She is now 14 years old.
Growing in Popularity
The effectiveness of the treatment brought CAR T under the spotlight as a miracle treatment to the form of cancer that Emily and Tori had. After Tori, more than 50 other cases have emerged of people suffering from ALL who went in to remission within six weeks of undergoing CAR T treatment.
This prompted the FDA to approve the treatment, and now the treatment is called Kymriah and is available in the market as the last resort when traditional methods of cancer treatment are ineffective.
The Designer of the CAR T
Steven A. Rosenberg, a doctor and researcher working at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), was one of the first people to suggest using modified T cells to fight cancer. According to his research statistics, around half the people suffering from cancer respond positively to radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, while the rest succumb to the disease.
The doctor was very positive about the approval of CAR T by the FDA, because, according to him, the CAR T offers a new approach to curing incurable cancers.
An Expensive Treatment
However, the treatment is expensive. Kymriah costs about $475,000 per treatment, whereas another, later version of the treatment called Yescarta costs about $373,000.
There are also some side effects, such as greater vulnerability to pneumonia after the treatment as it kills of healthy immune system cells as well. There is also the fact that CAR T also has a considerable rate of failing to work on a child.
The Future with CAR T
There is still a long way to go with these drugs. Novartis, the company that makes Kymriah, is looking forward to treating 600 patients in the US currently, as they are eligible to receive the treatment.
CAR T is also being researched further to cure other forms of cancer, and clinical trials have shown that it may also be an effective treatment against multiple myeloma. The hope is to have CAR T target tumours, and researchers are working towards that goal as it will be able to cure over 90% of the total forms of cancers.