When Sergio Ramirez learned that his acute lymphoblastic leukemia had returned with a vengeance – after six months of remission – he was terrified that he’d never play football again with his three sons.
At just 30, he had everything to lose: his kids, a job he loved and a wife he adored.
His chances of survival were just 15 percent, and Ramirez braced himself for that chilling conversation with his wife and boys. Saying goodbye was the worst thing he could imagine.
“My biggest fear was that my sons would lose their dad,” he said. “It was also my biggest motivation to keep on fighting.”
Thanks to City of Hope and a clinical trial conducted by Anthony Stein, M.D., director of the Leukemia Program, Ramirez never had to convey the bad news. Today, the big rig truck driver is kicking it on the playing field and shooting hoops with his boys, who are 10, 12 and 14.
Clinical trial, stem cell transplant offered hope
Stein is a clinical professor in City of Hope’s Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation. He helped gain approval for the drug used to treat Ramirez. Known as Blincyto
(generic name blinatumomab
), the medication fights acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Stein oversaw the 2012 clinical trial of blinatumomab at City of Hope; other top hospitals in the U.S. and Europe took part as well. Ramirez’s story put a human face on the trial of the drug and was recently featured in the 2015 American Association for Cancer Research Cancer Progress Report
. The article chronicled Ramirez’s journey, including the fact that his ALL went into remission with blinatumomab.
The clinical trials met Ramirez’s needs just in time. Fortunately, his physician knew about Stein and blinatumomab, and quickly referred Ramirez to City of Hope. The drug is designed for patients with a certain form of ALL that is resistant to therapy.
Harnessing the immune system’s power to heal
Stein described the power of blinatumomab, and its effectiveness on patients with this unique form of ALL.
“It utilizes a patient’s own immune system, directing their immune cells to attack and get rid of leukemia cells,” he said. Because chemotherapy had failed to eradicate Ramirez’s leukemia, he was an ideal candidate for the clinical trial.
The drug was administered in two 28-day cycles (with a two-week break in between) prior to the transplant. It saved Ramirez’s life just in time.
By the time Ramirez came to City of Hope, the outlook was bleak, especially when a biopsy revealed that 82 percent of his cells were leukemia cells. He was only the 104th person to try the drug. But after taking blinatumomab and undergoing the transplant, Sergio showed no sign of leukemia.
In the current trial, 43 percent of the 189 patients treated in a multicenter trial achieved remission within the first two treatment cycles. The drug was similarly effective among those patients who previously had a stem cell transplant and those who had not, as well as in elderly patients.
Results of the blinatumomab study were strong enough to allow the Food and Drug Administration to grant the drug an accelerated approval last year.
Post-treatment, life is sweet
While at City of Hope, Ramirez found a caring, compassionate staff that felt like family.
“Dr. Stein was there each morning to check on me,” he recalled. “Everyone made me feel like their son, from the nurses to the personal trainer they arranged for me. I love City of Hope.”
Life is enjoyable again for Ramirez. Three months after treatment he completed a 5k race with his oldest boy. This year, he took his family to the Bahamas to play in the surf and loll in the sun.
“It’s been three years since his treatment and he’s doing very well,” Stein confirmed.