Woman with pancreatic cancer grateful for personalized immunotherapy

In 2018, Florida resident Kathy Wilkes was happily working in a health care job and never imagined herself as a patient. Then she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and everything she thought about her life changed.

Pancreatic cancer accounts for only 3 percent of all cancers in the United States but 7 percent of all deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. Although surgery may successfully treat early stage pancreatic cancer, currently there is not an effective treatment for the disease when it is in an advanced stage.

“I said, ‘okay I have cancer, what do I need to do to save my life?’” Kathy underwent chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. Still, the cancer spread to her lungs.

She knew she needed to a take a different approach. “I researched immunotherapy,” she explained in an on-camera interview for Providence. “I also had my genetic testing report that showed my [genetic] mutations. So, I was armed with information.”

Study leads to Providence

Kathy’s research led her to a 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that had positive clinical results in a patient with colorectal cancer that had spread to the lungs. The lead scientist in this study was Eric Tran, Ph.D., now a principal investigator at Providence Cancer Institute of Oregon. Dr. Tran led the trial while training at the National Cancer Institute. He was recruited by Providence in 2017.

“I was really excited,” said Kathy. “Dr. Tran was interested in my case after seeing my medical files.”

As leader of the Adoptive Cell Therapy Laboratory at the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, a division of Providence Cancer Institute, Dr. Tran’s specialty is developing a highly personalized immunotherapy approach to treating cancer. In a classic form of adoptive cell therapy, a patient’s immune cells, called T cells, are removed from the tumor, grown to an army of billions, and then returned to the patient’s body to fight the cancer. Providence is one of a limited number of centers nationwide that have the expertise to perform adoptive cell therapy.

Taking adoptive cell therapy to the next level

In Kathy’s case, Dr. Tran saw an opportunity to take adoptive cell therapy a step further. Instead of removing T cells from the tumors, T cells taken from the blood could be genetically engineered in the lab to target and attack a mutation expressed by Kathy’s specific cancer.

The FDA quickly approved the experimental treatment as a single-patient investigational clinical trial, meaning the treatment could only be tested in Kathy. Dr. Tran co-led the study with Rom Leidner, M.D., medical oncologist and researcher at Providence.

Treatment reduces size of lung tumors

In early 2021, Kathy flew to Portland, excited to start her treatment at Providence. First, her blood was removed through IVs in her arms, allowing T cells to be extracted. (Her blood was then circulated back into her body via the IVs.) In the lab, Kathy’s T cells were genetically engineered and increased to 16 billion. Then, the army of cancer-fighting cells were reintroduced in her body. Kathy remained in Portland for a month following the treatment so she could be monitored and cared for by her Providence team.

Before she returned to Florida, Dr. Leidner did a CT scan to see if Kathy’s treatment had been effective. “We were amazed,” she said. “In just a month the tumors had shrunk by 62 percent.”

Six months later, the tumors had shrunk by 72 percent. Kathy continues to get CT scans every three months and is thrilled each time to see that the tumors in her lungs have not grown. “Our hope is that they continue to stay where they are or get smaller.”

New study focuses on metastatic cancers

Drs. Tran and Leidner have launched a new clinical study that is currently recruiting people with metastatic cancers. The phase I study, available only at Providence Cancer Institute, is like Kathy’s treatment in that it will deliver engineered T cells to patients with incurable cancers. However, treatment before and after T cell transfer is different. For example, in this clinical trial patients will not receive chemotherapy.

Kathy says it is important that people with cancer learn about clinical trials like the one she participated in. “There are options and therapies that provide hope,” she said. “I had hope and the belief that I was going to live. Calling Dr. Tran was the best call I ever made.”

Learn more about the latest adoptive cell therapy clinical trial here:

Hotspot TCR-T: A phase I/Ib study of adoptively transferred T-cell receptor gene-engineered T cells (TCR-T) targeting tumor-specific neoantigens, with in vivo CD40 activation and PD-1 blockade, for patients with incurable cancers

Creating Hope through philanthropy

Kathy shared her story at Creating Hope 2022, the signature fundraising event of Providence Cancer Institute. Live streamed from the Portland Art Museum, Creating Hope was an evening of optimism and positivity in support of adoptive cellular therapy and other innovative cancer treatments in development at Providence. We heard inspiring stories from patients like Kathy and exciting advancements from Dr. Tran and other Providence researchers and clinicians.

Seventy percent of research at Providence Cancer Institute is funded through philanthropy. Your generous gifts make an enormous difference to the communities we are privileged to serve. Every dollar makes a difference in helping us reach our $1 million fundraising goal. Give today.

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