Last fall, 20-year-old Milton Wright III was given a death sentence. Today, he is expected to live a long, healthy life. This is the incredible story of how two determined researchers and the parents of a young boy came together to save him.
On Sept. 18, 2013, 20-year-old Milton Wright III walked into Seattle Children’s Hospital and received some devastating news.
Leukemia. Again. The third time in his young life, to be precise.
Wright wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis. He had been worried his cancer was back and went to the hospital alone to avoid worrying his mom and three younger siblings. Still, the news was paralyzing.
“I really felt like I was coming up in the world,” he said. “I thought I was done with cancer.”
Then the news got worse. Wright’s leukemia had become resistant to chemotherapy. A bone marrow transplant could cure his cancer, but he would have to be in remission first, and that couldn’t happen without chemotherapy. His chances of survival were dismal.
Wright remembered his friends who died after their third cancer diagnosis and started sobbing in the exam room. “I was waiting for them to give me my six months,” he said.
But oncologist Rebecca Gardner, MD, had a better idea. She believed Milton was the perfect candidate for a new kind of cancer treatment – a treatment that came to be thanks to a team of dedicated researchers and the parents of a boy who died far too young.
New treatment, new hope
Ben Towne did not make it to his fourth birthday. Diagnosed with neuroblastoma just before he turned two, the loving, passionate Seattle boy passed away in 2008 after 15 months of exhaustive therapy.
“As a parent you never expect to outlive your children,” said Jeff Towne, Ben’s father. “We kept asking ourselves ‘What can we do to keep this from happening to other families?’”
Towne and his wife, Carin, quit their jobs and startedwith the goal of accelerating the pace of pediatric cancer research – changing the way childhood cancers are treated and cured. And they had someone in mind to help them.
Michael Jensen, MD, was leading his own lab at City of Hope, a California-based cancer research and treatment center. There, he had developed a technology to reprogram T-cells – white blood cells that find and fight infections – to detect cancer cells and destroy them. The therapy had side effects similar to those experienced when the body fights off a common infection. It was far less harmful than chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. Jensen was ready to take his research to pediatrics, and had begun talking with Seattle Children’s Research Institute, where he was also introduced to the Townes.
“We knew after our first meeting with Mike that this was what we wanted to get behind,” Towne said. “We shared the same vision: A cure for cancer that would save kids without lifelong side effects.”
Jensen left his lab and moved to Seattle to build a new pediatric cancer research center that would offer immunotherapy to children. Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research opened its doors in 2011 and by 2012 the FDA had approved the center’s first clinical trial – Pediatric Leukemia Adoptive Therapy, or (PLAT)-01. The trial would treat relapsed Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) patients who were unlikely to survive with standard therapy.
The first patient – a 23-year-old-woman – was enrolled in early 2013. Just 9 days after she was injected with Jensen’s reprogrammed t-cells, her cancer was gone.
“I will never forget that moment,” Jensen said. “I knew we had something special.”
Gardner didn’t forget that moment, either. She knew that Jensen’s clinical trial was ready to accept a second patient – and Wright was an ideal candidate. Instead of walking into Wright’s room and telling him had six months to live, she presented the option to enroll in the clinical trial.
“He was really excited,” Gardner said. “It was like a light for him. None of the past therapies had worked but now we had something new to try.”
Wright was infused with reprogrammed T-cells six weeks after his devastating diagnosis.
Walking a fine line
For days, Wright waited, wondering if the therapy would work. He began experiencing low blood pressure and flu-like symptoms and returned to the hospital.
Doctors told him he was walking a fine line. His symptoms suggested the T-cells were fighting his cancer, but he would only survive if clinicians could manage the effects. If he got any sicker, doctors would have to administer a “kill switch” medication that would eliminate all the infused T-cells – and destroy his chance for remission.
Thankfully, two weeks after the T-cells were infused, the most sensitive tests revealed no evidence of leukemia.
Wright’s cancer was gone, which made it possible for him to get a bone marrow transplant.
“It was like a miracle,” he said. “I was so relieved. And so, so grateful.”
It was also a huge step forward for Gardner and Jensen. Wright’s remission proved the trial’s initial success was not just a fluke.
“There are a lot of clinical trials where you get lucky with the first patient and then it flops,” Jensen said. “The more remissions we get the brighter the future is for tomorrow’s patients.”
But few were more elated to hear about Wright and the trial’s success than the Townes.
“It’s not just about the science,” Towne said. “These are real people on the receiving end of this. They have names and stories. These are real lives being saved.”
Wright was just eight years old when he got his first cancer diagnosis. He was a sophomore in high school the second time.
Despite enduring five total years of chemotherapy, Wright graduated high school on time and channeled his passion for physical fitness into a promising modeling career. Before his most recent cancer diagnosis, he had appeared in ads for Adidas, Zumies and Nordstrom.
Wright is cautiously optimistic that his 20s will mark the end of his long cancer journey and hopes to get back to modeling soon. He wants to show the world how strong a three-time cancer survivor can be.
“I know I am lucky to be here and I will never forget those who didn’t survive before me,” Milton said. “I’m living for them now, and I’m going to make the best of it.”
Meanwhile, Gardner, Jensen and their team, are not resting on their accomplishments. The FDA has expanded the age limit of (PLAT)-01 to children 1- to 26-years old, so the team is preparing to treat many more patients with immunotherapy.
“Everything is moving faster,” Jensen said. “Now, we need to figure out how to do this so any child who needs this therapy can get it at Seattle Children’s.”
Jensen has also opened a second trial– (PLAT)-02 –for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia patients who have relapsed after a bone marrow transplant.
“This is a patient population with a very poor prognosis – measured in months,” Jensen said. “There are very few therapeutic options for them.”
If the trial is successful and patients enter remission with only t-cell immunotherapy, researchers will prove immunotherapy is more effective than a bone marrow transplant and it could one day become the standard treatment.
“Patients could be done with their leukemia therapy in three weeks instead of three years,” Jensen said.
Jensen will also be partnering with oncologist Julie Park, MD, to lead a clinical trial using immunotherapy to treat children with neuroblastoma – the cancer that took Ben Towne’s life.
“The neuroblastoma trial is definitely more personal,” Towne said. “But we are going to keep up our work until all childhood cancers are cured.”
Added Jensen: “We have a long way to go, but I don’t stay awake at night wondering if it will work. I wonder when it will work.”
If you’d like to arrange an interview with Milton Wright, Jeff Towne or Drs. Mike Jensen or Rebecca Gardner, please contact Seattle Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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See more images of Milton Wright in our online Flickr gallery.