First CAR-T Cell Therapy Patient at Bay Area Community Hospital on Quick Road to Recovery
By Kathy Engle and Monique Binkley Smith, Vitals contributors
Robert Vincent had been living cancer free for 14 years when a visit to the doctor for what he thought was a hernia turned out to be inflamed lymph nodes. Unfortunately, his lymphoma had returned.
It was 2021, and Vincent began seeing Sutter East Bay Medical Group hematology oncologist Dr. Rajesh Behl at Sutter Alta Bates Summit Medical Center’s Comprehensive Cancer Center in Berkeley.
“I went through a chemotherapy regimen, but Dr. Behl told me not to worry because if chemo turned out to be unsuccessful, he and his team had a plan—that was the first time I had heard of CAR-T,” Vincent says.
CAR-T, chimeric antigen receptor T-Cell therapy, is a cellular immunotherapy that uses T-cells to fight certain types of cancer including leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma. T-cells are white blood cells that help the immune system fight diseases by destroying infected or cancerous cells. They are separated from a patient’s blood, modified to bind with a specific protein on the patient’s cancer cells and infused back into the patient to attack the cancer cells.
Unfortunately, after failing two lines of chemotherapy, Vincent had limited effective treatment options, but he was a candidate for CAR-T.
“I wouldn’t be here today without Dr. Behl’s foresight and the care of his team,” Vincent explains. “Compared to chemotherapy it was a wonderful process for me in that you are not having to introduce toxic drugs and chemicals into your system. It was an amazing and humane process for which I am grateful. I only wish it had been available as a front-line treatment.”
Vincent is the first patient in the Bay Area to benefit from CAR-T immunotherapy at a non-academic hospital. Now two hospitals in the Sutter integrated health system offer the leading edge therapy. Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento began offering the therapy in 2022. Dr. Behl and his team received accreditation to perform the procedure at Alta Bates Summit in 2023 with the support of philanthropic gifts from the community.
Supporting Excellence in Cancer Treatment
Now Alta Bates Summit has launched a $2.5 million fundraising campaign for the CAR-T immunotherapy program to ensure the Comprehensive Cancer Center has the resources it needs to make CAR-T therapy available to as many patients as possible while continuing to enhance the program. Results seen in patients after CAR T-cell therapy and recently published in high-impact medical journals like Nature are a landmark scientific achievement for a field that has experienced significant advances since the first patients were treated a decade ago.
“We are lucky to have the support of philanthropists in our community who have helped us bring this important therapy to local patients,” Dr. Behl says. He and his team are also working toward increasing the uses for CAR-T, beginning clinical research to expand beyond certain lymphomas and leukemias to include chronic lymphocytic leukemia—a type of cancer where the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes—or to potentially treat non-cancer diseases like refractory lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
“Seeing patients like Robert return to living the kind of life that gives them joy, brings joy back to the care teams as well,” says Dr. Behl. “It is so important to be able to deliver this kind of care to patients without the need for them to travel hours away from their home. As I think back across decades of caring for patients with blood cancers, I see how impactful therapies like this are and remember so many patients who could have benefitted from this medical advance.”
“Patients often travel long distances to receive CAR-T, and they must stay nearby for at least a month to watch for side effects,” explains Dr. Behl. “Also, currently, CAR-T is a last line of treatment, forcing patients to be away from their families during a very difficult time. Therefore, bringing this kind of treatment to our community, closer to home for patients, will be a huge benefit.”
“At least 30% to 40% of the patients I see have a kind of malignancy that can benefit from CAR-T therapy, and the list of treatable cancers is growing rapidly,” Dr. Behl says. “My hope is that our cancer center can be at the forefront of using these innovative therapies much earlier in the course of disease, rather than as a last treatment option.”
Vincent has returned to golfing and walking and enjoying time with his family. He didn’t think his lymphoma would return so quickly after chemotherapy, but in a way, he was glad it happened when he was young enough and strong enough to benefit from many more years ahead, cancer free. He says he feels honored to have been the first person to receive this treatment at Alta Bates Summit and was struck by the compassionate care and humanity of the whole staff, from schedulers to nurses to Dr. Behl.
“Dr. Behl treats a patient’s disease, but more than that, he really takes an interest in who you are as a person, what motivates you and brings you joy because that is what he wants to get you back to participating in. And he has done that for me,” Vincent says.