Andrew Parker was 59 years old in 2016 when he went to visit his doctor, because his leg was swollen. Parker found out that he had aggressive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a terminal form of cancer. Following a battery of chemotherapy treatments which did not work, Parker was at his wit’s end. His doctors suggested that he contact University of Chicago Medicine oncologist Michael Bishop, MD. What happened next was one of the greatest cancer treatment success stories in the field of CAR-T therapy.
CAR-T therapy was still a relatively new treatment form in 2016. Dr. Bishop was conducting a clinical trial of this immunotherapy treatment. Since nothing else had worked, Parker opted to try the therapy as a last-ditch hope. He felt he had no other choice, because all of his other treatments had failed.
The therapy involves drawing T-cells from a patient or donor’s blood sample and then genetically modifying them. The result is a small batch of chimeric antigen receptor T-cells, or CAR T-cells. Those genetically altered T-cells have been reprogrammed to target antigen receptors on cancer cells, and kill them. The small batch of CAR T-cells must then be mass produced in a large quantity before the treatment can happen. The CAR T-cells are reinfused in the patient’s body in a process that takes about 10 minutes. Another advantage of CAR-T therapy is that it is a “one and done” process. It involves just one treatment, as opposed to multiple rounds of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
Andrew Parker qualified for Dr. Bishop’s 2016 trial because his previous cancer treatment regimen had failed. He had no other option. Then, the pair received some bad news. The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) had suspended all CAR T-cell trials for the time being.
Parker thought he was going to die. He returned home to Michigan.
Dr. Bishop did not give up on Parker’s situation, however. He filed an appeal with the FDA and asked that the trial continue under a “compassionate use” condition for Parker. The FDA approved the appeal, and Dr. Bishop called Parker back to UChicago Medicine the next week.
Following his CAR-T therapy treatment, Parker was in the intensive care unit for several days. He was sick at first, but the feeling faded in about three days.
Several weeks later, Parker underwent a bone marrow biopsy. The result: he was completely cancer free. The chimeric antigen receptor T-cells in his immune system had killed off all the cancer cells. Parker was able to return to his job after just three months, and is now living his regular life, without cancer, more than five years later. The only ongoing treatment that Parker receives is a routine immunoglobin infusion to help stave off the possibility of infection. Part of the clinical trial also requires Parker to pay Dr. Bishop a visit twice a year for blood work.
Andrew Parker’s story of overcoming terminal ALL remains one of the greatest success stories of CAR-T therapy to this day. UChicago Medicine has 13 new clinical trials under way for various CAR T-cell treatments of other cancers.