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Immunotherapy Breakthroughs in Lymphoma Treatment Show the Power of Translational Research

As professor of medicine and director of the Bone Marrow Transplant & Cell Therapy Lab at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), Bryon Johnson’s, PhD, participation in clinical research to harness the immune system to fight cancer is showing promising results for patients with lymphoma. But his research also has a deeply personal meaning since Dr. Johnson is himself a survivor of this cancer.

In 1990, one year after coming to MCW as a postdoctoral research fellow, Dr. Johnson went to see a doctor to have it looked at more closely. An MRI and biopsy revealed he had a form of B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma in his femur. His prognosis was good, but he needed to undergo six months of chemotherapy and radiation.

Although traditional cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation offer patients a prolonged life, their side effects may also cause long-term health issues such as weakened bones, heart and lung problems, nerve damage and more. Ten years after treatment, Dr. Johnson experienced a traumatic injury due to radiation weakening of his femur. His injury is an example of the kinds of long-term consequences of traditional cancer treatments patients face.

Now, Dr. Johnson is leading the way to develop immunotherapy treatment options that reduce or eliminate these kinds of long-term side effects. He oversees the clinical laboratory portion of MCW’s chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy program, which combines efforts of researchers and clinicians across MCW, the Froedtert & MCW health network, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the Versiti Blood Center of Wisconsin to modify patients’ T cells and equip them to work with their own immune system to fight cancer.

Dr. Johnson works closely with his assistant lab director, Fenlu Zhu, PhD, and his clinical partner, Nirav Shah, MD, MSHP, both assistant professors of medicine in MCW’s division of hematology and oncology, to minimize the amount of time it takes for patients to go from trial enrollment to receiving the CAR-T cell therapy.

Dr. Johnson and the entire CAR-T cell therapy team have seen impressive early results, and Dr. Shah recently presented their research at the 2019 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting in Chicago. In phase I of the clinical trial, patients were given low, medium and high doses of CAR-T cells to test safety, but also observed very promising early efficacy. Now, the team is looking forward to moving into phase II of the trial to test clinical response and efficacy more thoroughly. They are also planning to begin trials using the same treatments in childhood cancer patients later this year.

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