From Lindsey Himmler
July 15, 2022
Written by Lindsey Himmler and photographed by Leah Davies for Venue Cincinnati Magazine.
What if you could treat cancer without chemotherapy?
That’s the goal of OHC, experts in the treatment of adult cancer and blood disorders. OHC has been a pioneer in the Cincinnati community for 38 years. As the only independent cancer group in the region, they work with all the various health care systems. And they’re working tirelessly every day on cancer research and clinical trials to improve outcomes for patients across the globe.
One of their newest treatments is chimeric antigen receptor T-cell immunotherapy. This cutting-edge treatment, often shortened to CAR-T, uses a patient’s or donor’s T-cells to fight cancer. T-cells are white blood cells that help the body fight infections and cancer. The problem is that T-cells aren’t always strong enough to attack cancer or even recognize it as something to fight.
A Warrior’s Tale
For patients like Ann Nemo, CAR-T therapy is already making a life-changing difference.
Nemo was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2013. Multiple myeloma is cancer that forms in plasma cells. Plasma cells are typically found in the bone marrow and help make up a healthy immune system. Multiple myeloma causes the cancer cells to multiply, damaging organs and bones, and pushing out the “good” cells that fight infection. Because the symptoms can be subtle, many patients are treated for other things before getting the correct diagnosis.
It took Nemo several months and several doctors before bloodwork revealed the cause of her bone pain. Her primary care doctor immediately sent her to Dr. James H. Essell at OHC.
Essell, a hematologist, oncologist, and cellular therapy expert, is the national principal investigator for The US Oncology Network for CAR-T clinical trials. He also serves as the medical director of The Jewish Hospital — Mercy Health Cincinnati Cancer and Cellular Therapy Center.
“We had the first patient in Ohio to receive CAR-T for myeloma,” Essell says. “We had more patients in the first month than anyone in the country.”
One of those first patients was Nemo. Since her diagnosis in 2013, she’d tried over nine different treatment options, but none gave her lasting results.
“After all the treatments and relapsing every time, I was running out of options,” Nemo says. “But with this disease, they’ve made so many strides. It’s amazing.”
Essell contacted Nemo almost the moment CAR-T therapy was approved. Her answer was easy. “Sign me up!” Nemo said.
In May 2021, Nemo received her CAR-T treatment, the second patient at OHC to get it. After the initial blood draw to remove her T-cells, she received a small dose of chemotherapy. Then she received her improved T-cells during an eight-minute outpatient treatment.
It was a huge success. Her numbers dropped to normal.
She’s now a year out from her CAR-T treatment and doing well. “I’m in complete remission now,” she says. That means driving again, doing her puzzles, and soon seeing her two children and five grandchildren when they visit to celebrate her 80th birthday. And it means spending time with Eddie, her husband of 55 years.
“He calls me ‘The Warrior,’” Nemo says. “Thank goodness for Eddie.”
Hope For The Future
The future with CAR-T therapy looks bright. Currently, CAR-T therapy is only approved for a few cancers. But OHC is part of multiple clinical trials, including using CAR-T to treat breast cancer. There are over 100 clinical trials hoping to bring this breakthrough treatment to people fighting all kinds of cancers.
“The CAR-T we have now is the iPhone 1,” Essell says. “We thought it was the greatest thing in the world.”
But it’s only going to get better. Soon it could be a first-line treatment for cancer.
“This technology is here to stay. It’s the way of the future, and it’s happening in Cincinnati,” Essell adds.
It’s possible that one day, instead of getting toxic chemotherapy to kill cancer, patients will get a booster of T-cells to allow their body to fight cancer naturally.
And you won’t have to leave Cincinnati to do it. OHC will continue to be part of that future, just like the history their team is making now.
Top picture: Ann Nemo with her husband of 55 years, EddieComments (0)