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“A very hopeful job”– saving the sickest kids with a new leukemia therapy

As a parent, some stories are more difficult to write than others. My recent Stanford Medicine magazine article about kids with leukemia is an example. Hearing about children with life-threatening illnesses and the doctors who battle to save them is heart-wrenching. But my story describes how a new treatment known as CAR-T cell therapy provides a glimmer of hope for the sickest of these kids.

The treatment involves a concept called cancer immunotherapy, in which a patient's own immune system is trained to seek out and kill cancer cells. In CAR-T cell therapy, immune cells called T cells are isolated from the patient and genetically modified to recognize a molecule found on the surface of the cancerous cells.

My story traces the experiences of a courageous 11-year-old boy named Salvador, shown above with his mother, and his doctors at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, including pediatric oncologists Kara Davis, DO, and Crystal Mackall, MD. After failing all other treatment options, Sal's family opted to try the new therapy. Within a month, the cancer cells were no longer detectable. Now, eight months later, Sal is back in school.

As I describe in my article:

Now researchers at Stanford, including Mackall, Davis and their colleagues, are investigating ways to make CAR-T cell therapy faster, cheaper, safer and more broadly applicable to other types of cancers. They’re experimenting with combination therapies that target more than one molecule on the leukemia cells. They’re also looking for new targets on cells in solid tumors, and brainstorming ways to reduce the cost. And, of course, they’re closely following the progress of the kids like Sal in ongoing clinical trials at Stanford.

Mackall is one of the pioneers in the field of CAR-T therapy. She is the associate director of the Stanford Cancer Institute and director of the Stanford Center for Cancer Cell Therapy. She also leads the Stanford-based center of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy.

But despite these credentials, I was most impressed by the team's passion and heartfelt desire to help the kids under their care. I hope that comes through loud and clear in this story. After all, it takes a special kind of person to make a career out of tending to kids in pain.

As Davis explained:

When I tell people that I treat kids with cancer, they often say, ‘How can you do that, it must be the saddest job in the world. But it’s not that to me at all. It’s a very hopeful job, particularly now.'

Previously: New blood cancer treatment gets FDA approval, New target for CAR-T cell therapy "gives hope" to researchers at Stanford, NCI, and Exploring the promise and challenges of cancer immunotherapy

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