Advancing the Field of Cell Therapy

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia makes breakthroughs for patients with leukemia and other diseases.

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Kaleo Richard and Jennifer had a feeling that something was wrong with their son, Kaleo, in late 2016. He was catching frequent colds and having bouts of bronchitis. When Kaleo started to get unexplained bruises, they brought him to the family’s pediatrician for a blood test. The results were alarming.

“The doctor told us that he had cancer in his blood and told us to immediately bring him to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia,” Jennifer says.

A rare form of cancer

That same day, Kaleo was diagnosed with leukemia. A multidisciplinary team at CHOP including oncologists, hematologists and geneticists worked together to refine the diagnosis to juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML), a rare cancer of the blood that affects young children.

Kaleo’s care was coordinated by pediatric oncologists at CHOP who are specialists in leukemia, as well as team members from the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, part of CHOP’s Cellular Therapy and Transplant Section. This section delivers the most cutting-edge treatment options for a variety of severe illnesses, various cancers such as Kaleo’s, and disorders of the blood and immune system.

Together, they developed a plan to treat Kaleo: He would need a bone marrow transplant to produce healthy white blood cells. So Kaleo underwent chemotherapy to manage his symptoms while clinicians searched for a bone marrow donor.

The family received good news a month later. Kaleo’s older sister, Scarlett, was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant.

“I’m going to save my brother”

Scarlett was cared for by her own medical team, separate from Kaleo’s, plus child life specialists helped Scarlett become prepared and excited about being a donor. “Scarlett would say, ‘I am going to save my brother with my magic cells!’” Jennifer says.

Nancy Bunin, M.D., medical director of the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, was in charge of Kaleo’s transplant. “We were very grateful that we had a leading expert like Dr. Bunin treating Kaleo,” Jennifer says.

Kaleo responded very well to treatment and recovered quickly. “Kaleo loves to dance,” Jennifer says. “After he recovered, the team had a dance party to celebrate with our family while we were living in the hospital. It was a real breakthrough moment for us — it gave us hope.”  She keeps a video of the dance party on her phone.

About a month later, Kaleo was cleared to go home. He was closely monitored by the outpatient oncology team, who Richard and Jennifer describe as their “second family” for teaching them to care for a post-transplant child at home.

One year after his transplant, Kaleo’s results were reported to be perfect — he now has all new bone marrow. Most important: The leukemia is gone.

World-Class Cellular Therapy and Transplant

Kaleo’s success story is an example of CHOP’s expertise in the field of cellular therapy. Along with the Blood and Marrow Transplant Program, CHOP’s Cellular Therapy and Transplant Section includes the Cancer Immunotherapy Program, where children with a particular form of leukemia receive a revolutionary therapy pioneered at CHOP that reprograms a patient’s own immune system cells so they can find and destroy cancerous cells.

The Cellular Therapy and Transplant Section provides the highest level of support services to patients and families. Jennifer and Richard appreciated how CHOP focused on all of its family members during the transplant. “Child life even decorated our door with a ‘Happy Transplant Day’ message,” Jennifer says.

Tomorrow’s breakthroughs

Every day, CHOP relentlessly pursues the next innovative cancer therapy. “We have so many senior leaders at CHOP’s Cancer Center who are also leaders in research,” says Richard Aplenc, M.D., Ph.D., chief clinical research officer at the CHOP Research Institute. Aplenc himself fits that description: He is both an attending physician in CHOP’s Division of Oncology and a researcher focused on improving the outcomes of children with a particular type of leukemia called acute myeloid leukemia (AML). His lab works to discover genetic variations that change a patient’s risks of relapse, life-threatening infections and heart complications. He has also played a critical role in the development of an upcoming clinical trial using immunotherapy to treat AML. “Our unique contribution is our expertise in AML, immunotherapy and bone marrow transplant,” Aplenc says.

Bunin, who was in charge of Kaleo’s bone marrow transplant, is also a researcher. “We contributed Kaleo’s cells to the team for research,” Jennifer says. “It was a gift for us to be able to pay it forward knowing we can help future patients with JMML.”