Friday Frontline: First Patient to Receive CAR-T Cell Therapy Dies, Cancer Organizations Appeal to President for COVID-19 Vaccine Priority Access, and More

From the death of Bill Ludwig, the first patient to receive CAR-T cell therapy to treat his end-stage CLL, to a letter to the President urging him to grant patients with cancer and survivors priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine, here’s what’s happening in the cancer space this week.

Bill Ludwig, the first patient to receive CAR-T cell therapy for treatment of end-stage chronic lymphocytic leukemia, died of COVID-19 pneumonia.

After being diagnosed in 2000, Ludwig managed to control his disease for years with intermittent chemotherapy. But it became increasingly more debilitating until he discovered the clinical trial examining the use of a patient’s own genetically engineered T cells to fight cancer. While treatment was by no means easy, Ludwig eventually became the first person to receive the therapy and went on to have his cancer “wiped out” by it.

On Jan. 31, Ludwig, 75, died in the same hospital he received the groundbreaking treatment that would go on to save his life nearly 11 years ago.

“He was just an all-around good person,” his wife, Darla, said. “To think he died of COVID and not the cancer! His last two months were so sad. But [Penn] gave him an extra 10 years that we prospered from.”

Carl June, the Penn researcher whose lab pioneered the therapy – which is now Novartis’ Kymriah (tisagenlecleucel) – saluted Ludwig in an email: “Bill Ludwig was a pioneer who selflessly volunteered to be Patient No. 1.”

A 22-year-old woman with osteosarcoma received a Valentine’s Day visit from a well-known Prisma Health Children’s Hospital character that brought her to tears.

Throughout her nine months of treatment in 2019 and 2020, Oderra Campbell of Columbia, South Carolina, never had the opportunity to meet Olly Otter, the mascot of Kid’s Day of Lexington, though the two “talked on Facebook all the time”.

But on Valentine’s Day, Olly surprised Campbell at her doorstep with a bouquet of flowers and a hug and delivered a stack of notes from her hospital nurses and staff. Video of his visit was then shared to social media. While Campbell is now in remission, bone cancer left her unable to walk on her own, but Olly’s visit made her happier than she could explain: “I had no idea he was coming,” Oderra said. “And the notes my nurses and friends from the hospital wrote just made me feel so loved. I truly am so blessed to have such an amazing team/hospital family.”

Dogs trained to sniff out the most aggressive forms of prostate cancer could help develop a “robotic nose” to detect the disease in the future.

An international research program that has trained dogs to detect the disease via sniffing urine samples has found that their dogs correctly identified positive samples 71% of the time when detecting the most lethal prostate cancers.

Florin, a Labrador, and Midas, a vizsla, were trained by Medical Detection Dogs, a Milton Keynes charity based in Buckinghamshire, England. The group’s founder, Clare Guest, said the dogs have “enormous potential”.

"The dogs have been able to identify these very aggressive cancers. This could lead to lifesaving work in the future that would enable us to understand the difference between other diseases of the prostate and those that will go on to kill men," she said.

The project is so promising that Florin was brought to the U.S. to team up with scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the hopes of building a potential smartphone app that can replicate the sniffing ability of the dogs.

More than 130 organizations and institutions co-signed a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday, urging priority access to the COVID-19 vaccine for patients with cancer and survivors.

“Recent research has shown that patients with cancer are at increased risk of severe illness and death if they are infected with the virus,” the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) said in a statement. “Moreover, patients with cancer often receive frequent in-person care, which increases their risk of exposure to the virus. Certain survivors of cancer also have a higher probability of infection and COVID-19-related death compared to the general population.”

The letter, initiated by the AACR, implored the Biden administration and public health officials to grant priority access to these populations that are at increased risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, who might otherwise have to wait for “many months” if they are not provided with priority access.