Transforming Treatments for Rare Blood Cancer
For plumber Alan Hunsberger, 64, aches and pains went along with the job. But when a persistent sore knee began interfering with his ability to work, he knew he couldn’t ignore it any longer.
“I finally broke down and saw my doctor,” Alan says. “He took an X-ray and told me I was probably looking at a joint replacement.”
No fan of hospitals, Alan declined the recommendation and soldiered on. But within weeks, his knee pain extended to his hip, prompting another doctor visit. This time, the diagnosis was dire: multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable blood cancer that attacks the plasma cells that normally create antibodies in response to infections. Approximately 30,000 people in the United States are affected by the disease annually.
At the suggestion of a family friend, Alan and his wife traveled from their home in Oakton, Virginia, to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital’s Multiple Myeloma Program, where they met with Program Director David H. Vesole, MD, PhD, FACP.
“Over the last 25 years, we have quadrupled the life span of people with multiple myeloma through novel and innovative treatments, including autologous stem cell transplant,” Dr. Vesole says. “Through these and other advancements, we have changed multiple myeloma from an incurable disease with a very short life span into a chronic disease with a long life span.”
Alan’s treatment began with two months of targeted therapy: a potent cocktail of three different drugs designed to obliterate as many myeloma cells as possible. After having a good response to this therapy, Alan continued his care with the MedStar Georgetown Stem Cell Transplant and Cellular Immunotherapy Program—which is the only program between Baltimore and Central Virginia accredited for cell-based therapies by the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapy (FACT).
First, specialists harvested Alan’s stem cells from his bloodstream for safekeeping, then administered high-dose chemotherapy to destroy the vast majority of his remaining myeloma cells. Approximately 24 hours later, Alan’s previously collected stem cells were thawed and returned to his body by an intravenous infusion. They then homed in on his bone marrow where they grew and matured into healthy bone marrow—a process that takes approximately 11 days.
When his blood counts returned to normal, Alan was discharged from the hospital.
“Basically, what we’re trying to do is beat the disease into remission,” says Dr. Vesole, “starting with relatively mild but potent targeted therapy, followed by high-dose chemotherapy to destroy any remaining myeloma cells. Through this stepwise approach, we’re optimistic that we can keep the disease asleep with minimal residual myeloma remaining, thereby buying both quantity and quality time for the patient. In most cases, the myeloma will stay in remission for years following a stem cell transplant.”
“Each and every member of that team is an angel—they saved me from the grim reaper!” he exclaims. “They answered all my questions and, whenever I was nervous, calmed me down. I couldn’t have asked for better care or treatment.”
Within two months of his procedure, Alan was easing back into his job. Today, he’s in complete remission, working full time, and singing a new tune about hospitals and healthcare professionals, at least when it comes to MedStar Georgetown and the Stem Cell Transplant team.