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Detroit’s Children’s Hospital works to find a cancer miracle for smart, brave kid

Christopher on the riverfront

Christopher Rodriquez can solve the Rubik’s Cube in three minutes. Smart kid.

He’s also a very brave kid. Since he was nine, the fifteen-year-old has been fighting neuroblastoma, a childhood cancer that develops in the nerve tissue outside of the central nervous system. Now Stage 4, he’s come from Mexico to be part of an investigational treatment option at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. The new treatment, called antibody immunotherapy, made long-awaited improvements in the survival of high-risk neuroblastoma patients for the first time in almost 30 years.

Christopher getting his treatment

Christopher getting his treatment

It’s a little like trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube … bewildering problems and triumphant intelligence … simplicity and complexity … stability and dynamism … order and chaos. All those apply to cancer research.

Christopher’s symptoms started with an upset stomach that simply would not go away. “He wasn’t like a normal kid,” his dad, Guillermo, says. “He didn’t want to eat.”

After numerous tests Christopher ended up Hospital Universitario in Madero, Mexico, where he underwent surgery, chemo and some stem cell treatment. After that, things looked pretty good and the doctors decided to watch him. Then in June of 2014 the cancer was back and had spread to his bones.

“This time it was more complicated and there was more resistance,” his dad says.  There was nothing more the hospital in Madero could do.

With all those options exhausted, Guillermo took to the internet searching for other treatments … research … whatever might help his son.

Over the next few months, he contacted several hospitals including Children’s Hospital in Detroit. While other hospitals took quite a while to get back to him, Dr. Maxim Yankelevich, an oncologist on staff at Children’s wrote back in 24 hours. That’s the rule here. Get back to people within that timeframe.

Christopher and his dad made their first trip to Children’s in January. In a five-and-a-half-hour procedure they took 4-6 billion white cells from his body that would be used to fight the cancer.  From those cells the doctors grew a total of 25 billion T-killer cells. A T-killer is an immune cell that fights cancer.

L-R: Dr. Maxim Yankelevich, Christopher's dad Guillermo Rodriquez, Dr. Lawrence G. Lum

L-R: Dr. Maxim Yankelevich, Christopher’s dad Guillermo Rodriquez, Dr. Lawrence G. Lum

This approach has been tested successfully in other clinical settings, including treatment for metastatic breast cancer, says Dr. Lawrence G. Lum, scientific director of immunotherapy and bone marrow transplant for the Karmanos Cancer Institute. Drs. Lum and Yankelevich collaborated on the research along with two doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

The outcome for breast cancer patients was very encouraging. One woman was even well enough to leave hospice.

“The study using armed T cells for women with metastatic breast cancer showed an overall survival of 37 months, more than twice the overall survival in most clinical trials,” Dr. Lum said. “We have demonstrated successful treatment not only with breast cancer, but also with multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and gastrointestinal cancers. It is especially encouraging that all of the patients treated, to date, have not experienced any dose-limiting side effects.”

In addition, the median survival rate of five pancreatic cancer patients receiving the T-killer cell treatment was 14.6 months.

By mid-February Christopher was back at Children’s to begin his treatment. Before it all started he spent some time in Detroit taking in a Red Wings game and the city. The tickets came from the Red Wings Wish Club, which donates tickets to Children’s Hospital to give to kids. Seeing a Red Wings game was on Christopher’s wish list.

image6For the next four weeks, two times a week, he sat in chair in a small room for four to five hours hooked up to a machine that pumped those T-killer cells into his body. I spoke with his dad and his doctors in that small room. Christopher slept through the entire interview. The process takes a lot out of him.

Christopher is back at home now with his family. He’ll be back in a month for scans.

At home Christopher is a pretty laidback kid who lives a pretty normal life except when his immune system is low. Then there are no movies or anything like that and the family uses a lot of Lysol to make things sterile. And, they can’t ever have any pets.

“We have been surprised with how he’s handled this,” his dad says. “We’ve never hidden anything from him and have consulted him about everything. He has taken ownership of his illness. I know he is scared, but he doesn’t show it.”

“It feels great to take the next step in this study after years of laboratory research and preparations,” Dr. Yankelevich says. “It is important for young patients with high-risk pediatric cancers who fail standard treatments to have additional options like our study. A joint research and organizational effort of such institutions as Karmanos, Memorial Sloan Kettering and the Children’s Hospital of Michigan should enhance the chance of success.”

image4Christopher, his dad, his family and the doctors know there is no guarantee but as Dr.  Yankelevich says, “Hope is the important thing.”

That hope will be extended to other families. Christopher was one of nine children in phase one of the program. He was the third one to receive the treatment. A child from Russia is next in line and will be arriving at Children’s soon.

The patients in phase one get the lowest number of T cells to see they react to the treatment … its effect and how much can be tolerated while still maintaining quality of life.  Phase two will have be 20 patients, who will get a larger number of T-killer cells.

“What we learn from Christopher will help future patients,” says Dr. Lum.

Guillermo agrees but he’s still Christopher’s dad. “I hope this works for my child,” he says, “… and others.”

When you look at the scrambled Rubik’s Cube you know exactly what you need to do without instruction. Get all the colors on the same side. Yet without instruction it is almost impossible to solve.

As its creator Erno Rubik said, “If you are curious, you’ll find the puzzles around you. If you are determined, you will solve them.”

Drs. Lum and Yankelevich and Christopher and his dad are determined to help find the answers … and hopefully begin to destroy Christopher’s cancer. That makes all the difference and is one of reasons Children’s Hospital of Michigan offers hope to so many.

Miracles happen at Children’s Hospital all the time. I’m praying for one for Christopher.

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