August 30, 2019
Amy Jo Smith is hanging on to hope.
The 26-year-old mother of 2 describes the non-Hodgkin lymphoma wending throughout her body as a “ticking time bomb.”
For nearly 3 years, Amy Jo has put up a fierce fight against her diffuse large B cell lymphoma. She has endured intensive radiation, chemotherapy and, earlier this year, an autologous stem cell transplant. None of the treatments has kept her cancer at bay.
“It keeps fighting back,” says Amy Jo, who lives in Atchison, Kansas.
But Amy Jo is not giving in.
At The University of Kansas Cancer Center, she recently became the second adult patient worldwide to receive immunotherapy to fight her non-Hodgkin lymphoma, 1 of only a handful of patients receiving the treatment through a clinical trial. The trial is the first in the world to offer this immunotherapy for adults with diffuse large B cell lymphoma.
“Immunotherapy uses the patients' own immune systems to attack their cancer, including leukemia and lymphoma,” notes Joseph McGuirk, DO, medical director of the blood and marrow transplant (BMT) program and Amy Jo’s doctor. “With new technology, we can turn on the immune system’s T cells to recognize the cancer cells and kill them.”
Diffuse large B cell lymphoma is the most common type of lymphoma, occurring in 1 of 3 cases diagnosed in the U.S. At this time, 12 people from around the globe – including Australia and Canada – have been screened for studies here. Dr. McGuirk, who also directs the Division of Hematologic Malignancies and Cellular Therapeutics, is the trial’s principal investigator.
Once reinfused, the new Pac-Man T cells gobble up the cancer cells and move along. These are the cancer fighters that attach to the cancer cells, punch holes in them and destroy them. – Joseph McGuirk, DOMedical director, blood and marrow transplant program
Immunotherapy improves prognosis
About a month ago Amy Jo’s T cells, which are critical to immune response, were collected from her blood and reprogrammed to kill her particular type of cancer. While her T cells were modified in a laboratory, she continued chemotherapy as an outpatient.
Amy Jo’s T cells were then reinfused into her bloodstream. She received a short infusion (about 1 syringe) of highly manipulated T cells that will attach to and kill her cancer cells, Dr. McGuirk says.
“Once reinfused, the new Pac-Man T cells gobble up the cancer cells and move along,” Dr. McGuirk explains. “These are the cancer fighters that attach to the cancer cells, punch holes in them and destroy them.”
After her infusion, Amy Jo must remain at The University of Kansas Hospital for a week. Once she leaves the hospital, she will be closely monitored for up to 2 months and then followed for 5 years.
Without immunotherapy treatment, Amy Jo’s prognosis is poor.
Without the treatment, Dr. McGuirk says Amy's survival would be a matter of months. “This young mother and her 2 small children are counting on this being effective. It’s a critically important shot in controlling her cancer. And, hopefully, in eradicating it once and for all,” he says.
The best hope for beating lymphoma
Amy Jo, who has lost 4 family members to cancer, admits she never dreamed she would be fighting for her life in her 20s. She received her initial diagnosis when she was 11 weeks pregnant with her younger son, Michael, who was born without complications.
“When my doctor told me it was lymphoma, I didn’t know what treatment would entail,” she says. “I thought I’d have chemotherapy and be done.”
When doctors first discussed her diagnosis with her, Amy Jo says she didn’t know much about diffuse large B cell lymphoma or immunotherapy.
“When you hear the word diffuse, you think about time bombs – ticking away,” Amy Jo says. “Dr. McGuirk has been very honest with me. He says immunotherapy is my best hope; chemotherapy will not give me long-term results.”
Amy Jo is excited about the possibility of a treatment and a little nervous. Her 2 young sons, Matthew, 5, and Michael, 2, and her fiancé Matthew, strengthen her resolve.
“This could put an end to my disease forever,” she says. “I can watch my children grow up and see grandchildren.”
This individual participated in a clinical trial of an investigational treatment. Clinical trials are different from standard medical care. As with all research studies, clinical trial participant outcomes vary. Before participating in a clinical trial, it is important to discuss the risks and benefits with your healthcare provider.