Doug's Story Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

What happened when Doug was losing his battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia? Penn sent in an army of T-cells.

For 20 years, Doug Olson lived with an enemy determined to take his life: chronic lymphocytic leukemia or CLL, a cancer that starts in the bone marrow. It causes white blood cells to grow out of control and prevents the immune system from protecting the body against illness or infection. With CLL, even a common cold can turn deadly.

But Doug fought hard. He had a wonderful marriage, children, grandchildren and a passion for sailing. Onward was his attitude.

4 fighting rounds later

Over 14 years, Doug endured four rounds of conventional chemotherapy to control his CLL. But the cancer was relentless and progressing. When 40 percent of Doug’s bone marrow was overrun with cancer, his oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. If not, Doug faced an uncertain future.

Back off, cancer

Doug was hesitant to undergo the transplant, since he understood that it is a brutal treatment with only a 50 percent success rate. So his oncologist suggested something revolutionary. Exactly what someone would expect from David Porter, MD, Director of Blood and Bone Marrow Transplantation at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center, and one of the nation’s top oncologists.

Dr. Porter believed that Doug was an excellent candidate for a research study Penn had pioneered that used person’s own immune system to fight the leukemia. Doug immediately agreed to participate because he felt ‘suddenly there was new hope and a way to fight.’

The weapon: targeted T-cell immunotherapy

As part of the study, Doug’s own body was resourced to fight the cancer. Doug’s

T-cells were removed from his blood, and then genetically reprogrammed in a Penn laboratory to destroy his CLL. Dr. Porter explained that up to 93,000 leukemia cells can be killed by just one reprogrammed T-cell. Very nice odds.

When the T-cell cocktail was ready, Doug received a five-minute infusion of the supercharged T-cells. He was carefully monitored at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center to ensure his well-being and went home the same day.

Great news keeps coming

Two weeks after Doug’s infusion he developed fever and chills — signs that his body was fighting the cancer. Doug returned to the hospital for a few days where Dr. Porter delivered the great news, “Doug, the therapy is working.”

A miracle of science

Less than one month after Doug’s infusion, Dr. Porter had the honor of giving Doug news he had been waiting to hear for 14 years, “Doug, we can’t find a single cancer cell in your body. Not in your bone marrow. In your blood. Not anywhere.” It was a momentous day for Doug, Dr. Porter and the oncology team at Penn where a passion for battling cancer is in their blood.

Hope and future plans

During this time, Doug and his wife drove down to the Annapolis boat show and bought an 18-foot daysailer. Doug now knew, for the first time in a very long time, that he would be around to teach his grandkids to sail. And to see them grow up.

Today, three years after his breakthrough immunologic therapy, Doug is healthy and cancer-free — a miracle of modern Penn Medicine.

Hear Doug tell his story in his own words, and request an appointment with Penn Medicine's cancer specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center.