Blue Springs woman benefiting from revolution in cancer therapy

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WESTWOOD, Kan. -- Doctors call it a revolution in fighting and possibly curing cancer. Immunotherapy uses the body's own immune system. A Blue Springs woman is among those seeing promising results.

Heloise Gray's hope of winning her war on cancer is in the bag.

"I come in every other day for them to switch out the bag. It's okay. It's just like carrying a purse, really," said Gray.

The bag holds precious medicine to fight her ALL, a leukemia diagnosed a year ago. Through a tube, the drug, Blincyto, is infused 24 hours a day for a month. Then Gray is on standard chemotherapy for three weeks before going back to Blincyto. It is immunotherapy, a drug to turn the body's own white blood cells called T cells into cancer fighters.

"When it attaches to the cancer cell, it brings the T cell in close proximity to the cancer cell and then the T cell releases its killing machine and kills the cancer cell to which it's attached," said Dr. Joseph McGuirk of K.U. Cancer Center.

Blincyto was approved late last year. K.U. Cancer Center is the first in the world to also test a therapy for lymphoma in which T cells are removed from patients, modified and returned to them.

"The light at the end of the tunnel for cancer patients has become much brighter with these immunotherapeutic strategies and they're unfolding at a remarkable rate," said Dr. McGuirk.

He says with Blincyto, 60 to 90 percent of patients achieve full remission compared to 30 percent with standard medicine.

"I've been in remission," said Gray.

She may get to stop the medicine soon.

While results have been promising, Dr. McGuirk says, "We don't know what the long-term effect is going to be four or five years down the line."

He says that's why many patients also get stem cell transplants. For now, Gray is relying on Blincyto.

"Made me feel that there was hope that I will be here to see at least my first grandson graduate from high school," she said.

The drug alone costs more than $175,000 per patient. Flu-like symptoms are fairly common. The doctor says patients also have to be monitored closely initially for serious problems with the kidneys and heart.