New T-Cell treatment helps Austin woman survive leukemia

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by JIM BERGAMO

KVUE

Posted on July 14, 2014 at 8:45 AM

Updated Monday, Jul 14 at 5:24 PM

AUSTIN -- An Austin woman hoped to soon start life as a mother. Instead she learned her life may be about to end -- and soon. Her doctor says without an almost science-fiction type of new treatment, she wouldn't be alive today.

Diana Colon and her husband Lee married in October 2011. The high school and college sweethearts were trying to get pregnant when her doctor insisted she come in to discuss her blood work.

"The doctor said a whole long sentence with leukemia in the middle," said Diana. "I'm like, 'Excuse me? What did you say?'"

Specifically, it was acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or cancer of the bone marrow, that produces all of the blood cells. It's a disease that's usually fatal. She got the news on Jan. 4, 2013.

"My 24th birthday," Diana said. "Happy birthday to me."

Diana has a great sense of humor. She also has plenty of fight -- both of which would be necessary to wage the battle for her life. After chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant failed, doctors gave her only a 10 percent chance of survival.

"Holy crap," she said. "I'm 24. It's my birthday. I'm supposed to be pregnant. This is not supposed to happen to people like me."

"I had my biopsy yesterday in Philadelphia," Diana told Dr. Punit Chadha, M.D., a hematologist and oncologist with Texas Oncology South Austin, during a recent visit.

Dr. Chadha told her about a remarkable new study going on at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia called CART-19. The T in CART stands for T-cells.

"It's absolutely amazing," said Dr. Chadha.

It's amazing because the patient's own T-Cells are removed. They're genetically re-engineered to fight the cancer and reinserted into the body.

"It works because it manipulates her own immune system to target only her leukemic cells," said Dr. Chadha.

Dr. Chadha says it's revolutionary because most chemotherapeutic agents used to treat cancer kill rapidly growing cells – all rapidly growing cells – both good and bad.

"This form of treatment specifically targets the cells that are cancerous -- the leukemic cells only -- and spares the rest of the cells in her body," said Dr. Chadha.

Diana is now in complete remission, just a year and a half removed from her initial diagnosis.

"It's an amazing feeling to be called normal, to be told your white count is normal, you're cancer free," said Diana. "I don't understand it. I don't have to understand it. It works, so I'm fabulous."

 

Diana is only the sixth adult in the world to undergo the CART 19 treatment. Because of the damage caused by her leukemia, she and her husband will not be able to have children by traditional means. But she says whether it's through surrogacy or adoption, they will indeed enjoy the family they had hoped to start just over a year ago.

  • Go here for some of the more frequently asked questions about the CART-19 study.
  • Go here for the Texas Oncology website.
  • Go here to find out more information on the bone marrow registry.

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