Doctors Heals Cancer Patient by Turbocharging Immune Cells in His Blood

In 1996, Doug Olson was feeling exhausted and went to the doctor. His examiner frowned.

When she poked his neck, she replied, “I don’t like the feel of those lymph nodes.”

She requested a biopsy. His malignancy was chronic lymphocytic leukemia, primarily affecting the elderly and accounts for a quarter of all new leukemia cases worldwide.

He said he was just 49 years old at that time and had always been fit.

Six years passed with no sign of cancer. It started to grow all of a sudden. After four rounds of treatment, cancer returned.

He was almost out of options when his oncologist, Dr. David Porter of the University of Pennsylvania, invited him to be one of the first patients to get CAR T cell therapy, a revolutionary new approach to treating cancer,

He was the second of three individuals to get the experimental therapy in 2010.

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Dr. Carl June said the cells “demonstrate tumor-killing characteristics.” Courtesy of University of Pennsy

According to a Nature publication published by June and his colleagues Dr. J. Joseph Melenhorst and Porter, this early trial’s CAR T therapy cured two of three patients.

They all had CLL. Strangely, even after the malignancy had vanished, the CAR T cells persisted in the patients’ bloodstreams, acting as sentinels, as reported in Science.

“Now we can finally say the word ‘cure’ with CAR T cells,” June remarked.

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Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks with Dr. Bruce L. Levine and Dr. Carl H. June at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016.

According to Porter, whatever the method, the end outcome is beyond the wildest expectations, according to Porter.

“Oncologists don’t use words like ‘cure’ lightly or easily or, frankly, very often,” he said. “I guarantee that it’s not being used lightly. The patients we treated had far advanced disease,” he noted, adding, “the biggest disappointment is that it doesn’t work all the time.”

“Historically, if these cancers don’t recur in two to five years, the likelihood of relapse is low,” said Dr. Hagop M. Kantarjian, chair of the department of leukemia at the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Life is good for Olson, who is now 75 and lives in Pleasanton, California.

He still shakes his head at the incredible coincidence that his oncologist was an investigator in that clinical research a decade ago.

“I’m a lucky man,” he said.

Doug Olson in Bend, Ore., in December 2021. (Olson family photo via The New York Times)
Doug Olson in Bend, Ore., in December 2021. Credit: The New York Times
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