Doug's Story Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

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.

Four 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 his bone marrow was overrun with cancer, his oncologist, David Porter, MD, recommended a bone marrow transplant. If not, he faced an uncertain future.

Doug was hesitant to undergo the transplant, since he understood that it is a brutal treatment with only a 50 percent success rate. Then Dr. Porter suggested something revolutionary: CAR-T cell therapy.

CAR-T cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy treatment that Penn pioneered, which uses person’s own immune system to fight the leukemia. At the time, the treatment was still in clinical trials, and Dr. Porter believed Doug was an excellent candidate. He immediately agreed to participate, feeling like "suddenly there was new hope and a way to fight."

The weapon: Targeted CAR-T cell immunotherapy

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

Two weeks after his infusion, he developed fever and chills—signs that his body was fighting the cancer. He returned to the hospital for a few days before Dr. Porter finally 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 him the 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. To celebrate, Doug and his wife drove down to the Annapolis boat show and bought an 18-foot daysailer. He 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, four years after his breakthrough immunologic therapy, Doug is healthy and cancer-free. And he is just the beginning.

In August 2017, Kymriah™ became the first CAR-T cell therapy to be approved by the FDA. Developed here at Penn Medicine, Kymriah™ is approved to treat patients up to 25 years of age with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), as well as adult patients with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), a common form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.