Immunotherapy cancer treatment puts Hellam Twp. teen in remission
A Hellam Township teen is in remission after fighting cancer with his own genetically modified cells thanks to a recently approved immunotherapy.
Ryan Dellinger, 17, left with his family for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on Dec. 16, and by Jan. 29 he showed no signs of cancer.
The CAR T-cell therapy, pioneered by the children's hospital in collaboration with the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, involves removing T cells (a type of white blood cell), modifying them to detect cancer and re-inserting them into the body.
It was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2017, and the hospital has since treated more than 250 children with the therapy.
Ryan only needed one syringe of genetically modified cells, he said, and "once they connected it to your port and pushed it, that was it."
He just attended Penn State's THON — a fundraiser to help fight childhood cancer — with his family from Feb. 15 to Feb.17 after receiving free passes from Four Diamonds, an organization that supports childhood cancer research and patients at Penn State Children's Hospital.
"I’m feeling really well," Ryan said. "I’m feeling back to normal now at this point."
Last hope: Dellinger was diagnosed June 11 with B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of childhood cancer affecting the blood and bone marrow that increases in risk for children over the age of 10.
His age, gender and "a chromosomal abnormality that causes resistance to treatment" made him an extremely high-risk case, and after two rounds of chemotherapy failed, an experimental therapy was one of his last options.
"It’s just amazing to think that 28 days out from infusion that it got rid of all his cancer cells," said Ryan's mother, Molly Dellinger.
Since follow-up treatments were as an outpatient, Ryan said he was also fortunate to be able to explore the city during his stay — a couple of museums, the Eastern State Penitentiary and "of course I had a Philly cheesesteak."
Returning to school: With no adverse side effects to his infusion, Ryan returned around Jan. 12 to finish his senior year at Lancaster Mennonite School.
"At first it was a little tough to get used to being so active," he said, but the school was very accommodating — allowing him to take breaks or leave, if needed.
He hopes doctors will give him the OK to have his port — inserted to better administer chemotherapy — removed in three months, which will make it easier for him to do lifting, hiking and dirt-biking again.
He has been accepted at Penn State York and will start next fall. He intends to major in information technology with a minor in business or marketing.
Continued recovery: In two or three months, Ryan will receive a bone marrow biopsy to see if he's still in remission.
If any B cells return within six months of the therapy, there is a greater risk of relapse, which increases over time, his mother said.
Dellinger said doctors said that 90 percent of patients go into remission at the end of 28 days, and about 60 percent stay in remission after a year and about 55 percent after two years.
If Ryan's cancer were to return, he does have one more vial of genetically modified T cells frozen that he could use to try the therapy again, and he always has the option of a bone marrow transplant, she said.
Since the modified cells killed off both his healthy and cancerous B cells — which produce antibodies — he will need to get monthly immunoglobulin replacement therapy to protect him from infection.
Dellinger said Ryan will eventually transition to self-administered weekly injections, which "could potentially be a lifelong condition for him."
She doesn't yet know how much insurance will cover those costs, which run about $30,000 annually.
Donations to the family's GoFundMe campaign will be used to offset Ryan's future medical expenses.