Fever, weight loss, chest pain and back pain are all symptoms of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that begins in your lymphatic system and travels quickly throughout the body. A new form of immunotherapy can give patients a second chance they never thought they would have.
Chuck Fata puts everything he has into running the family’s four Italian restaurants; it takes many years in the business to toss pizza the way he does. But in 2014, a constant dull back pain threw Fata for a loop.
“As long as I can remember, pizza’s been a part of my life,” Fata said. “We got an MRI to see what was going on, and it was cancer, and I couldn’t believe it.”
Chuck was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He had chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and even had his spleen, half of his stomach and part of his pancreas removed. But the cancer continued to spread. City of Hope hematologist and oncologist Tanya Siddiqi suggested CAR T-cell therapy.
“CAR T-cell therapy is a way to take a patient’s own immune cells, the healthy immune cells called T-cells, and to change them in the lab in a way that, instead of looking for infections to fight infections, the CAR T-cells then are trained to look for the lymphoma and fight the lymphoma instead,” Siddiqi said.
Chuck’s own T-cells were genetically engineered in the lab to target a specific protein found in cancer cells.
“It takes about two to four weeks for the CAR T-cells to be manufactured, and then, right after some chemo, we give patients back their CAR T-cells, and within a month we see that oftentimes patients are in a complete remission,” Sidiqqi said.
A month after Fata’s infusion, he got the good news.
“She said, ‘You’re in remission,’ and that was kind of unbelievable to hear,” Fata said.
“I would say cured,” Siddiqi said. “If you go beyond five years in his type of disease, we call it a cure.”
“CAR T not only saved my life, they gave me the same life,” Fata said. “I had it before cancer, and that is amazing.”
Siddiqi says 40% to 45% of her non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients who had no other options were saved and are alive five years after remission due to the new CAR T-cell therapy. City of Hope is one of the first four sites worldwide to enroll patients in the CAR T-cell therapy trial. The FDA has now approved it for use in adults with aggressive lymphoma.