It’s been a year since fashion designer Joanne Scott went through a cancer treatment that changed her life — and made history to boot.
Ms. Scott, 54, was the first person in the world to receive an injection of tumor-activated natural killer (TaNK) cells as a treatment for leukemia.
Her doctors at the Royal Free Hospital in London recommended this experimental therapy after two years of traditional treatments, including chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, failed to keep her in remission. Ms. Scott didn’t expect it to work. “I thought that I was gonna get really sick again,” she said, “like I had before.”
But the new treatment succeeded where the others had failed, sparking hope among oncologists that TaNK cells could be the key to a new type of advanced cancer therapy.
Doctors at the Royal Free injected Ms. Scott with natural killer (NK) cells taken from her daughter, Tara, who was 21 at the time. The next day, Ms. Scott was able to go home from the hospital.
“I felt fine immediately. I was going out to dinner and things like that,” Ms. Scott said. “It was really nice after all the other treatments I’ve had, which were very, very grueling.”
The idea behind the new treatment is this: NK cells, which are part of the body’s immune system, will target and fight any leukemia cells that survive chemotherapy if they are activated to fight the cancer. In cancer patients, however, the NK cells are not activated and do not attack the cancer cells.
Ms. Scott’s doctors activated the cells they took from her daughter into TaNK cells, which can kill even NK-resistant tumors. Within a week of the injection, the TaNK cells had survived and multiplied. Within a month, a study of her bone marrow — the site affected by the type of leukemia she had — confirmed that the TaNK cells were attacking her cancer.
Ms. Scott had to return to the hospital for five weeks because her neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, were dangerously low — a consequence, she thinks, of years of chemotherapy. Since her discharge, she sees her doctor for regular blood tests and occasional platelet infusions, but otherwise, she said, her life is back to normal.
“I'm in a position where I'm self-employed. If I feel tired, I can go home or stay in bed or I can get up at midday and go to work then, but I haven't been. I've been working five days a week from 9 to 5. I've been feeling fine,” Ms. Scott said.
Her good health and good mood mark a sharp change from how she felt when she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) four years ago. AML is a cancer of the myeloid line of blood cells and the most common acute leukemia among adults.
“I was shocked that I had leukemia,” Ms. Scott said. “I always ate healthily and exercised and all these sorts of things, and I thought I would be all right.”
In patients with AML, abnormal white blood cells accumulate in the bone marrow and impede the production of normal blood cells. Common courses of treatment include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and bone marrow transplantation.
Ms. Scott underwent three to four sessions of chemotherapy — she can't remember the exact number and doesn't want to reflect too long on such a painful part of her past — but the cancer returned.
Her doctors treated the recurrence with an autologous bone marrow transplant, but this second round of treatment also failed to keep Ms. Scott in remission.
“I was really, really upset,” she said of her second relapse. “I don't want to think about how it felt. I don't want to feel like that again.”
After the transplant failed, Ms. Scott lost hope that she would survive AML. She began preparing herself for death. “When you’re in your 50s, you can think, ‘At least I’ve lived a life,’” she said. “At least I've lived to be 52.”
This sense of resignation vanished after she underwent the TaNK cell therapy, Ms. Scott explained. The treatment has renewed her hope for the future. “I think to myself, ‘What if I live to my 70s or my 80s?’” she said. “I want to stay healthy and live to be an old person.”
Researchers at the Royal Free, led by principal investigator Dr. Panos Kottaridis, are currently recruiting patients for the clinical trial of the TaNK cell therapy, which has been licensed to Coronado BioSciences, a U.S.-based biopharmaceutical company. Three patients enrolled to date, including Ms. Scott, had failed all prior therapies before admission to the study.
“The results so far are very encouraging, as three patients with refractory disease enjoy long-term remission,” Dr. Kottaridis said. “However, this is a Phase I study that has been designed to assess toxicity as the main end point, efficacy being a secondary one. It is very important for us to be able to recruit more patients and complete the current phase before moving to a multicenter international study demonstrating favorable clinical outcome.”
Readers who would like to learn more about the study and patients who are interested in enrollment should visit the Cancer Research UK trial database at http://www.cancerhelp.org.uk/trials/trials/trial.asp?=&trialno=15617, contact Dr. Kottaridis by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or consult your physician.