April 19, 2015 | by Nicole White
“Imagine this space if we didn’t have this program,” said Stephen J. Forman, M.D., Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope. “There wouldn’t be any people. Just trees.” Forman can remember when there was no such picture to take, when the first Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion consisted of a single patient and his donor – his brother. Since then, the event has expanded dramatically. Now, beloved Dodger baseball players offer their well-wishes to current patients and survivors, renowned musicians and comedians – cancer survivors themselves – perform for an empathetic audience, and patients meet their stem cell donors from across the globe. The heart of the celebration is more than 4,500 patients and family members who celebrate their personal anniversaries, each wearing a button proudly proclaiming how long it's been since their transplant, which ranges from months to decades.
This year, the reunion was Friday, May 1. There – amid the cupcakes, barbecue, music and festive atmosphere for patients – physicians, nurses and other caregivers find the motivation that carries them to the next reunion.“The reunion motivates us, and leaves us in awe of the many patients we’ve been able to help, but it also keeps us humbled and focused on the patients currently in our care and those who will count on us in the future,” Forman said. “We’re never satisfied with our results. We’re always pushing ourselves to do this better.” Saving lives today, saving more lives tomorrow This constant thirst to perfect the stem cell transplantation procedure and to seek out new sources for stem cells – including umbilical cords and haplo-identical (nearly matched) donors – has played a role in City of Hope's success. In fact, the institution has achieved above-average, one-year survival rates every year for the last decade, according to the Center for International Blood & Marrow Transplant Research. This success rate is unmatched. Forman and his colleagues in the Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplantation Institute continue to forge new frontiers in science. For the first time, among the many stem cell recipients, will be patients who also received a new therapy in conjunction with the proven transplants: CAR T cell immunotherapy. In clinical trials of this therapy, the immune cells of cancer patients are collected, modified to have a specific receptor that can target their cancer cells, expanded in a lab, then reinfused into the patient. These “souped-up” T cells are able to recognize the cancer cells and attack. The hope is that they will be able to wipe out existing cancer cells, and also prevent relapses. This form of immunotherapy is currently one of the most promising developments in oncology, and City of Hope is a leader in clinical trials using this approach.
Pioneering these treatments in patients with blood cancers – taking the immune system back from the cancer and fighting it with a patient’s natural defenses – sounds futuristic. In many ways, it’s surprisingly familiar. A familiar (and triumphant) journey “When we first introduced bone marrow transplant, it was thought of as rogue,” Forman said. “Now the procedure is being conducted in varying forms at cancer centers across the U.S.” What started out as a very specialized, highly personalized therapy that benefited a few hundred patients is now the standard of care for many cancers. T cell immunotherapy has the potential to do the same. As Forman shared in a recent "Charlie Rose" interview, researchers and physicians are painfully aware of the painstaking pace of scientific progress – and cannot help but think of those patients who need new treatment options now. “There’s a certain tyranny of time that comes with our work, and that’s why we want to move faster. One of the things we pride ourselves on at City of Hope is trying to take that idea in the lab and move it quickly to the patient. They come to us for that purpose.” Now, a celebration that started as a spaghetti lunch for a single patient and a handful of caregivers, reminds City of Hope of its purpose: to keep the number of healthy, smiling faces in that photograph growing by constantly pushing the boundaries of science and medical care. ** Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion by visiting our website or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). You may also request a new patient appointment online. City of Hope staff will explain what's required for a consult at City of Hope and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.