An American woman who owes her life to a bespoke cancer treatment is speaking out to raise awareness of the procedure, CAR T cell therapy.

Laurie Adami was diagnosed in 2006 at the age of 46 with advanced, incurable blood cancer – stage IV follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“My prognosis was not good,” recounts Adami, who had a six-year-old son at the time.

She underwent six different treatments over the next 12 years.

“I was in treatment nonstop, I never had a break,” says Adami, who had to give up her job as chief executive of a software company.

She was part of multiple clinical trials and underwent multiple rounds of chemotherapy, but none fully eliminated the tumours.

In 2012, she heard of an immunotherapy known as CAR T – chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy, in which white blood cells are taken from a cancer patient’s body, engineered to target cancer cells and then re-infused into their system.

Adami said she thought, “Oh my god, I just have to stay alive long enough until I can get that.”

She got her chance in 2018, as one of the first patients in a phase 2 clinical trial of a treatment by Kite Pharma run out of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

It was a grueling ordeal. By then there were eight pounds (3.6kg) of cancer in her body. She spent 36 days in the hospital, 25 of them in the intensive care unit, including time in a medically induced coma due to brain seizures.

But scans tell the story: the treatment completely eliminated her cancer cells.

Laurie Adami’s before-and-after PET scans. (Supplied)

Adami arrived home from hospital a day before her son, now a teenager, left home for his first year of college across the country in Washington DC.

Doctors have since been able to develop methods such as prescribing steroids and anti-seizure medication prophylactically that ease the side effects Adami endured.

“I was a guinea pig, and they learned a lot from my case, and thankfully I survived it,” Adami says.  “It was pretty wild.”

US regulators approved the large B-cell lymphoma therapy, known as Yescarta, in 2017, a few months after it had approved the first-ever CAR T therapy, Kymriah.

Developed by Novartis (NYSE:NVS), Kymriah is used to combat a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

In July, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a third CAR T therapy, this one for the treatment of mantle-cell lymphoma.

Tecartus is also made by Kite, which was acquired by Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD) for an eye-popping $US11.9 billion in 2017.

In Australia, Kyrmiah was approved in 2018. This past January, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that the federal government would spend $80 million to expand access to the lymphoma treatment so that patients’ blood could be re-engineered at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne rather than being flown back and forth from overseas.

Yescarta received approval in February but hasn’t yet launched here.

‘It’s incredibly exciting’

Adami is telling her story in coordination with Prescient Therapeutics (ASX:PTX), the only company currently on the ASX working on CAR T therapies.

(Chimeric Therapeutics (ASX:CHM), which is developing a CAR T treatment based on scorpion toxin to treat brain cancer, is set to debut on January 18).

Prescient chief executive and managing director Steven Yatomi-Clarke told Stockhead he got in touch with Adami after seeing her post via a mutual friend on LinkedIn.

Lauri Adami
Laurie Adami today. (Supplied)

Yatomi-Clarke calls her story a testament to the power of CAR T as an anti-cancer treatment.

“We’re not seeing anything like it before,” he says. “It’s incredibly exciting.”

Treatments are improving so that future patients will not have to endure the awful toxicities that Adami endured.

“This is really version 1 of CAR T and it can only get better from here,” he said. “It’s just an incredible time to be a witness to this.

“I don’t know if it’s the end of cancer, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s the end of the beginning.”

Scientists are working on a number of approaches in the hopes that CAR T can have the same success combating solid tumours as the therapy does fighting blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma.

‘They saved my life’

Adami said that while her recovery took time, she’s now doing well and even training for a hike to Mount Everest base camp at the age of 61 as part of a fundraising effort for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

The trek has been delayed because of the coronavirus situation, but Adami now hopes to go with two of the doctors involved in her care in October.

If possible, she’d like to livestream parts of the trip to the infusion rooms at UCLA to inspire other cancer patients getting treatment.

She’s also had a short video produced about her story.

The Los Angeles woman was also recently on a Zoom call to thank the scientists at Kite who developed Yescarta.

“There’s so much cynicism about pharmaceutical companies, there are these stories that get them a bad rep — but I’ll tell you: there are so many fine people working at these companies, and without them, I wouldn’t be here today,” she says.

“They saved my life.”

At Stockhead we tell it like it is. While Prescient Therapeutics is a Stockhead advertiser, they did not sponsor this article.