San Diego

New UC San Diego Immunotherapy Modifies T-Cells to Kill Leukemia Cells

Robert Legaspi, 27, was the first in San Diego to undergo the immunotherapy

A new immunotherapy performed successfully for the first time in San Diego genetically modifies a body's T-cells to recognize and kill leukemia cells. 

Robert Legaspi, 27, was the first local patient to undergo the immunotherapy, developed by researchers at UC San Diego Health's Moores Cancer Center

Legaspi was nine years old when he was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). This year, his leukemia returned for the fourth time, but the cancer had not yet reached his bone marrow. 

His oncologist, Ted Ball, MD, told him about a new approach to fighting cancer: CAR T-cell immunotherapy. The treatment is only available in a few medical centers in the nation. 

Soon after, in May, Legaspi became part of the Phase I/II clinical trial at the Moores Cancer Center. 

Scientists collected Legaspi's T-cells and modified the cells to create special receptors on their surface: chimeric antigen receptors (CARs). These receptors help the T-cells recognize a specific protein on the tumor cell. 

When the T-cells are infused back into Legaspi's body, those cells can then recognize and kill leukemia cells. 

The immunotherapy worked. Two months after the one-time infusion, Legaspi was in remission, researchers said. In the past, it took two years of chemotherapy and radiation to send his cancer into remission, scientists said.

Legaspi said he only felt side effects for a week after the therapy. 

“You get so depleted by chemotherapy and radiation that you feel like you’re not even there anymore. And after putting that much time and energy into therapy, you’d expect a forever cure, but years later, it would come back and my life would be a nightmare again," he said in a statement.

The clinical trial is still in its early phases, said Oncologist Ted Ball, MD, and there are serious short-term side effects that can be managed. Researchers do not know the long-term effects of the treatment. 

Legaspi says now that he's back in remission, he's going back to school to earn his associate degree in nursing and hopes to give back. He's also been working through some of San Diego's trails. 

“I feel like the Hulk now, but instead of gamma radiation like that which made him so strong, I have extra-powerful T-cells — I feel immune to anything," Legaspi said.

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