Rachel Elliott recently graduated VCU and now works at Capitol One. You wouldn’t know it today but just three years ago her future looked bleak.
“I got a lot of infections and ended up in the ICU for an entire summer,” said Elliott.
The Richmonder was just a kid when she was first diagnosed with a blood cancer.
“I was 11 and that was with acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” explained Elliott.
She had chemotherapy and she was in remission. She moved on. That was until she relapsed her freshman year of college. She would learn it was time for another round of chemo and this time it didn’t go as well.
“The cancer that I had was responding well to chemotherapy but my body wasn’t responding well to the intensity of it,” Elliott told 8News.
So, when Elliot relapsed a second time in 2016, she refused more chemo. On the horizon was something called CAR T-cell immunotherapy. Doctor Christina Wiedl with Children’s Hospital Of Richmond at VCU explained this was a game changer.
“It super charges the immune system it uses the patient’s own body to recognize the cells that are foreign,” Wiedl said.
While VCU was first in the state to offer CAR T-Cell therapy to adults, it wasn’t available for kids. However, a clinical trial was underway at the Children’s Hospital Of Philadelphia.
Elliot and her family hit the highway and headed north to begin treatment. First, her T cells, were collected and then re-programmed in a lab.
“You’re basically hooked up to a dialysis machine,” Elliott said.
“We take them and we give them a new job,” explains Dr. John McCarty, director of Cellular Immunotherapies and Transplantation Program at VCU Massey Cancer Center.
A few weeks later, the cells are returned by infusion and ready to attack the cancer.
“It really is your own immune system against the cancer inside of you,” Elliott told 8News.
And she said the process was easy.
“I went back up in December and was back home the following January only a month and half two months after I got the infusion of the drug. And was able to start school that semester,” said Elliott.
Today she’s cancer free. Elliott says, “I am feeling great.”
Dr. Wiedl says, “She responded very, very well.”
“It is always a pleasure to see someone who isn’t just surviving cancer but truly thriving,” says Dr. McCarty.
Now Virginia families like Elliott’s no longer have to leave the state to get this care. VCU has expanded it’s care to include Novartis’ KYMRIAH, cutting-edge T-cell therapy for children to young adults. It is mostly for those who have stopped responding to other therapies and can’t get into remission.
“We have been active as a site now for the last several months and we have enrolled several young adult patients already and they have had wonderful responses,” Dr. Wiedl said.
“I really truly believe I think gene and immuno therapies are going to be the pillar of cancer treatments,” Elliott added.
VCU is already researching ways to use this treatment to hopefully fight other types of cancers in both children and adults.