KU Cancer Center One Of 16 In Nation To Offer Newly Approved Immunotherapy

Oct 24, 2017

Emily Dumler, pictured with her children in front of their Shawnee home, was one of the first people in the world to undergo CAR-T therapy. Dumler had an extremely aggressive form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Two years later, she's healthy.
Credit Dan Margolies / KCUR 89.3

Emily Dumler, a Shawnee, Kansas, resident who was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, successfully underwent immunotherapy more than two years ago.

Dumler was among the first people in the world to receive the treatment, which stimulates the immune system to fight cancer. But she had to travel to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, to receive it.

Today, the 36-year-old mother of three is cancer-free. And now, local patients with the same cancer diagnosis won't have to travel as far as Dumler did for treatment. 

That's because Kite Pharma, whose form of immunotherapy to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, has chosen the University of Kansas Cancer Center and 15 other cancer centers to offer the treatment.

Known as CAR-T (CAR stands for chimeric antigen receptor), the therapy is customized for each patient. It works by removing T cells from a patient’s body and genetically engineering them to recognize and attack the patient’s tumors. The T cells, a form of white blood cell, are then put back into the patient. 

Dr. Joseph McGuirk, of KU Cancer Center, calls immunotherapy one of the most exciting developments in his career as a cancer physician.
Credit University of Kansas Cancer Center

Dr. Joseph McGuirk, director of blood cancers and stem cell transplants at the KU Cancer Center, describes CAR-T as one of the most exciting developments in cancer treatment in his 30 years as a cancer physician.

“The plain truth is we had nothing effective to offer lymphoma patients in this situation before immunotherapy,” he said in a statement. “Once they went through two rounds of chemo without success, there was a brick wall. While this therapy won’t work for everyone in every case, it has had a significant success rate.”

Marketed under the name Yescarta, Kite’s treatment will be used to attack a variety of lymphomas if other treatments, such as chemotherapy and stem cell transplants, fail. Kite estimates that about 7,500 people in the U.S. will be eligible for the treatment annually.

Yescarta, while offering hope to patients who have exhausted other options, can have severe side effects and is expensive, costing $373,000.  And while it has achieved remarkable results in some patients, it has not been effective in all of them. But for patients like Dumler, who was one of those who had run out of options, it was a game changer.  

In the 10 or so minutes it took to infuse her re-engineered T cells back into her body, "my life changed right at that moment," she said in an interview with KCUR in August. "One month later I was considered to be in remission. There was no cancer detected at that point."

The FDA’s approval of Yescarta came shortly after it approved immunotherapy for patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. That therapy, sold by Novartis and called Kymriah, is even more expensive, costing $475,000. 

Besides KU, other cancer centers authorized to offer Yescarta include some of the most renowned cancer centers in the country. Among them are Dana-Farber/Brigham and Woman’s Cancer Center in Boston; the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota; Siteman Cancer Center, which is affiliated with Washington University in St. Louis; Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York; and MD Anderson.  

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.