Diagnosed with an aggressive lymphoma in 2014, Jeff Backer knew he was facing unfavorable odds of survival.
Despite multiple rounds of chemo and a stem cell transplant, the cancer kept coming back with a vengeance, creating masses in his chest and nodules all over his body "like the Elephant Man," he recalls.
As both a patient and a physician, Backer understood that hope was essentially a function of time. As he explains, "The secret to being a successful cancer survivor is to stay alive until technology catches up to your disease."
Backer found his high-tech hope for survival at Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center. He turned to a Moffitt clinical trial in cancer immunotherapy called CAR T cell therapy
For CAR T, the body's natural defenders, T cells, are collected from the patient's blood. The cells are sent to a lab for genetic manipulation to help them recognize the cancer for destruction. The resulting CAR T cells are infused back into the patient.
Moffitt was the first to offer this CAR T clinical trial, and several others, sponsored by Kite Pharma, which processes patients' T cells in its California facility. The study's co-principal investigator, Frederick Locke, M.D., is a Moffitt medical oncologist and translational scientist. He also happens to be Backer's transplant physician.
Dr. Locke says CAR T patients face potential challenges: high fevers, low blood pressure, shortness of breath and even neurologic complications that are usually reversible. Moffitt prepared with an innovative Immune Cell Therapy program called ICE-T. Its care teams trained extensively so they could offer appropriate intervention to handle potential effects.
For Backer, those effects were immediate. As soon as the CAR T cells were infused, he developed high fevers followed by neurologic complications. "The nurses would show me a clock and I would know what time it was," he says, "but I couldn't say it. Luckily, that only lasted a couple of days."
What truly amazed Backer was what happened to those "Elephant Man" nodules. Within a week, they simply melted away, as did the masses in his chest. "Psychologically, it boosted me to another level," he says, "I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel."
Results from Moffitt-led CAR T clinical trials suggest that it may offer that same hope for thousands. While standard therapy leads to complete remission for only 8 percent of patients with aggressive B-cell lymphomas that did not respond to the last treatment, nearly half of the clinical trial participants achieved complete remission. More than a third remained in complete remission six months after therapy. "Some of the first patients treated on the study have no evidence of lymphoma beyond the one-year mark," says Dr. Locke.
The data put this CAR T therapy on the path for approval by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, and Moffitt stands experienced and ready to offer this new hope to patients from around the world.
"I didn't know if I was going to be alive eight months to a year ago," says Backer, "This has been a blessing for me."
For more information on Moffitt Cancer Center, visit Moffitt.org