‘Almost Like You Won the Lottery’: CAR-T Cell Therapy Gives Cancer Patients New Hope

Treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma had been successful for Tanis Milicevic, who was in remission for years. But when her cancer returned, she turned to Mayo and a new, individualized cell-based therapy.

Imagine if you could "re-train" the body's immune system to attack and kill a very specific target. That's essentially how Mohamed Kharfan Dabaja, M.D., director of the blood and marrow transplant and cellular therapies programs at Mayo Clinic's Florida campus, would like you to think about CAR-T cell therapy. For some people with blood cancer, the treatment can offer hope "where other treatments have failed," according to First Coast News.

That was certainly the case for Tanis Milicevic, whom Florida's First Coast News reports began her fight against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 10 years ago. Treatment provided a few years of relief and remission. But when the cancer came back, so did Tanis's original fears. "I wanted to see them be successful and grow up," she tells First Coast News of her two young sons. "A big concern as a mother is just leaving my husband, like how would he be able to handle all that."

With that fear and driving motivation front of mind, Tanis made an appointment at Mayo Clinic. Under the care of Dr. Kharfan Dabaja, Tanis went through an extensive evaluation process to determine whether the innovative and individualized cell-based therapy had the potential to help her, First Coast News reports. When tests indicated it would, Tanis's care team began the "intricate process" of collecting some of her white blood cells and sending them to a lab, where they would be genetically modified and trained to become soldiers of war against her non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the news station reports.

When the cells were returned to Mayo Clinic to be infused back into Tanis's body by IV, they had been armed with "special receptors called chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs," First Coast News reports. Amazingly, those receptors gave the cells the newfound ability to not just "recognize an antigen (or marker) at the surface of cancer cells," but to also actively seek them out and kill them.

The result was a success for Mayo's CAR-T cell therapy program and, more importantly, for Tanis, who was the first patient to receive CAR-T cell therapy at Mayo's Florida campus. "Here she is over three months later with no evidence of any lymphoma in her body," Dr. Kharfan Dabaja tells First Coast News. "There is no evidence of any disease."

Tanis says that although "the recovery was difficult," it was worth it. "It was almost like you won the lottery, like here is your chance at life," she tells First Coast News. "Really you can't even put into words that moment."

You can read more of Tanis's story here and read more about Mayo's CAR-T Cell therapy program here. Then give us something to read by sharing your comments below. You can share this story with others by using the social media tools atop this page.