CAR-T: The Most Exciting Breakthrough in Cancer Treatment Since Chemotherapy



Photo by Heather Miller

 

“This is an exciting time to be in cancer care. We are at the forefront of what is looking to go down in history as a revolutionary new approach to cancer treatment,” said Miguel Islas-Ohlmayer, MD, a medical oncologist, hematologist, and blood and marrow transplant specialist at OHC.

Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer is referring to chimeric antigen receptor T-cell immunotherapy (CAR-T), a ground-breaking treatment, and OHC (Oncology Hematology Care) is the first and only adult cancer group in the region to offer it to adults with aggressive blood cancers.

With CAR-T, OHC doctors remove a patient’s immune system cells, send them to a lab where they are modified to recognize and kill cancer cells, and then infuse them back into the patient. Not only do they attack the cancer, the modified cells stay in the body where they continue to multiply. If the patient’s specific cancer returns, they’re ready to attack again. (See chart to understand how CAR-T works.)

“This is like nothing we’ve seen before,” says Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer. “During my medical training, CAR-T was a new theory. Now it’s an actual treatment and it’s working.”

No one appreciates that more than Kevin Lohman and his wife, Linda.

In April of 2018, they noticed a swelling on Kevin’s neck. He was also feeling run down and having some back pain. Kevin went to see his primary care doctor who shared his concerns. After a CT-scan, Kevin was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“From that point on, we were running the sprint of a lifetime,” Kevin said. “My wife, Linda, was my rock. She did the research. She was my main caregiver. She was my champion.”

By October 2018, after two rounds of chemotherapy, Kevin’s cancer had not responded. He was referred to OHC for a bone marrow transplant. They could have traveled to Lexington, Louisville, or elsewhere, but jumped at the chance to stay close to home, and they had heard wonderful things about OHC and Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer.

“When I first met with Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer, he said, ‘I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is your chemotherapy didn’t work. The good news is we have a brand-new treatment that was just approved by the FDA, and you’re a perfect candidate for it.’ I think I was only the fourth OHC patient to receive it. I’m grateful that this new option was available for me,” Kevin said.

Since the treatment was new, Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer and the OHC team monitored Kevin close for 11 days as an in-patient in the Blood Cancer Center at The Jewish Hospital – Mercy Health. After succeeding with that first hurdle, Kevin was allowed to return home, but still needed daily monitoring.

“I’ll never forget that winter. We brought Kevin to OHC every day for 30 days to make sure he was doing well, and of course we seemed to have a snowstorm every one of those 30 days,” joked Linda. “But in all seriousness, those short trips in the snow were worth it. OHC saved Kevin.”

It also allowed their children, Mark, a college sophomore, and Jackie, a college senior, to spend more time with their parents during Kevin’s cancer journey.

“I can’t imagine having to travel a great distance for this kind of care,” Linda said. “Kevin didn’t feel well, and I was exhausted and overwhelmed. We would have had the long drive, then stay in a hotel for a month or two. Thanks to OHC, we were in our own home, with our own comforts, in our own bed with our dog, Cooper. These simple things make a big difference when you’re facing a medical and emotional challenge.”

Since his CAR-T treatment, Kevin is doing well. He’s back to exercising, trips to the lake, and he’s even formed a bond with other CAR-T patients, like a fraternity who shares their experiences and offers support and encouragement to one another.

He and Linda have also formed a bond with their care team.

“We’re so thankful for all the great people who cared for us; Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer, our OHC nurse navigator Becky Bolt, Jewish Hospital psychologist Lynn Sontag, and the entire teams at OHC and the Blood Cancer Center. We never expected to end up with what we consider to be our second family, but when someone tells you your condition has improved and you’re doing well, you can’t help but embrace the people who gave you your life back,” said Kevin.

“It’s interesting to us that our patients and their families say we’re just like family,” said Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer. “What they don’t realize is how deeply they’ve touched our hearts and become like family to us.”

Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer predicts more dramatic cancer breakthroughs with advances like CAR-T.

“CAR-T and other immunotherapies have the world thinking differently about how we approach cancer,” he said. “Instead of treating the cancer directly, we’re helping the body’s immune system do the work. And that makes sense because that’s what the immune system is supposed to do.”

Through its nationally-recognized clinical trials program, OHC is participating in three new clinical trials that will evaluate expanded use of CAR-T therapy.

“Research is critical because when a cure for cancer is found, it will be in a clinical trial,” Dr. Islas-Ohlmayer added. “And OHC will be right there at the forefront.”

 

OHC has 10 locations in the Greater Cincinnati area. For more information, call 513.751.2273 or visit www.ohcare.com.