Olivia Viscogliosi is a curious, outgoing and very active three-year-old from Harrison, New York. But, earlier this year, her parents were concerned about her future. At the age of two, Olivia, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a rare form of the disease.
“There was a time when Olivia had a lot going on and we were constantly watching every single tiny movement she would make and constantly worrying about the next thing that was going to happen or complication with her illness,” said Dory Viscogliosi, Olivia’s mother. “She is so energetic now. We have a three-year-old who likes to play. A big weight has been lifted, knowing that she is healthy again.”
She received a bone marrow transplant at a hospital in New York. But, less than two months after the procedure, a test of her spinal fluid and bone marrow revealed Olivia had relapsed and the leukemia had returned. Her parents began to look at other options and heard about a new treatment, CAR-T Cell therapy, a groundbreaking, pediatric oncology immunotherapy program.
“We knew that this therapy was Liv’s best shot,” explained Dory. “We felt another transplant, which is what other doctors had recommended, would have been incredibly toxic to her body.”
Dory learned the Children’s Cancer Institute at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack Meridian Health Hackensack University Medical Center was the only site in New Jersey, and one of only 31 in the nation, offering the Novartis Pharmaceutical CAR-T Cell therapy. Alfred P. Gillio, M.D., director of the Children’s Cancer Institute, says the CAR-T Cell therapy, Kymriah, was approved by the FDA to treat children and young adults who have a challenging form of ALL.
“These are children that we would have sent home to hospice in the past,” says Dr. Gillio. “These are end-stage patients who really had no other options until the CAR-T therapy came along. It is a giant breakthrough for us. And, to be able to treat these patients is so amazing.”
Two months after receiving the CAR-T therapy, Olivia is in remission.
“We’ve had such a great experience with this team at the Children’s Cancer Institute and that’s been such a relief,” explains Dory. “We feel like we can finally start moving forward. This therapy is really the way of the future now, and an option that really works.”
The first patient at the Children’s Cancer Institute to receive the CAR-T therapy was nine-year-old Jizaiah Ramos of Elizabeth. Jizaiah has battled ALL since he was four and was previously treated at another hospital with chemotherapy and radiation. This was followed by a bone marrow transplant at Hackensack University Medical Center. One year after transplant, his family learned the leukemia had returned.
“It was devastating,” recalls Lillian Ramos, Jizaiah’s mother. “I was thinking about him and how he was going to feel and how he would tolerate treatment again. But, we received good news the same day he was diagnosed. We decided that day that we would pursue CAR-T therapy and we are so glad we went with that option. It’s been a life-changing decision for us.”
Since the treatment in March, a bone marrow biopsy and spinal tap have shown no evidence of cancer in Jizaiah, which indicates he is in remission.
“He screamed so loud when they told him,” said Lillian. “I was so excited and I thought, ‘Did we finally beat this?’ We’ve been battling leukemia for six years. Jizaiah was like, ‘Mom I finally get to be a kid again.’ That just broke my heart and I told him, yes, you can finally be a kid again. “
According to Dr. Gillio, studies at the University of Pennsylvania have shown that 85 percent of patients achieve remission after CAR-T therapy and half of patients achieve a long-term cure. Immunotherapies, which harness a patient’s immune system to fight disease, offer the promise of cure to many ALL patients previously thought to be incurable. This new approach involves engineering a patient’s own immune cells to recognize and attack cancer.
“It’s a complicated therapy with many, many steps,” explains Dr. Gillio. “First, we identify the patient. Then we have to obtain T-Cells or lymphocytes from the patients. Those cells are then sent to the drug company where they are processed for 21 days. The cells are then sent back to us and then we infuse the cells back into the patients. After the procedure, patients are hospitalized for about two weeks and have to be monitored very closely.”
CAR-T Cell therapy has resulted in long-term remissions in the majority of patients treated to date and is a major advance in the search for a cure for childhood leukemia.
“Hackensack University Medical Center is proud to offer this groundbreaking treatment to our pediatric patients, providing them and their families with new hope for a cure,” said Ihor S. Sawczuk, M.D., FACS, president of Hackensack University Medical Center. “This cutting-edge therapy is a prime example of our team’s dedication to our commitment to provide the highest quality, human-centered care.”
Tackle Kids Cancer, a philanthropic initiative of the Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation, has supported the implementation of CAR-T Cell program at the Children’s Cancer Institute. Tackle Kids Cancer is dedicated to finding a cure for pediatric cancer.
“Tackle Kids Cancer has been key in allowing us to offer this therapy,” said Dr. Gillio. “Tackle Kids Cancer provided the funding to enable us to begin administering the treatment very quickly. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to treat Jizaiah and Olivia and we couldn’t be happier about their progress and their future. We look forward to treating additional patients and providing them with real hope. This therapy is most definitely a game changer.”
For more information about Tackle Kids Cancer, please visit https://www.tacklekidscancer.org.