In just five years, Levine Cancer Institute’s bone marrow transplant program is renowned as the fastest-growing program in the country.

News | 3 years ago

Five Years, 500 Transplants, One Cutting-Edge Program

In just five years, Levine Cancer Institute’s bone marrow transplant program is renowned as the fastest-growing program in the country.

When Ashley learned that she had lymphoma, she was 11 weeks pregnant with her second child. During her pregnancy and her daughter’s first few months, Ashley went through three types of chemotherapies. During that time, her diagnosis changed to gray zone lymphoma – a rare form that has characteristics of both Hodgkin and Non-Hodgkin lymphomas – and her body proved to be chemo-resistant. Her doctor suggested a stem cell transplant.

Ashley didn’t fear the transplant, but she hated the thought of weeks away from her children. She wouldn’t need to travel far from her home in Indian Land, S.C., however. With lymphoma specialists at Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute, she could have her transplant in Charlotte and minimize time away from her family. But still, saying good-bye to her children was difficult.

“There was a nurse named Beth, and she saw me crying and visibly upset after I was admitted into the hospital. The first thing she did was to give me a big ol’ hug, and it made me feel 100 times better,” Ashley recalls. “And then I thought, OK, let’s do this.”

Ashley’s transplant on March 5, 2019, would become the 500th one for Levine Cancer Institute’s bone marrow transplant (BMT) program. The procedure that would mark a major improvement for one mother would mark a major milestone for a program that has become one of the fastest-growing and cutting-edge in the country.

A Quick Ascent for a New Program 

Only five years have passed since the BMT program began at Levine Cancer Institute, but much has changed. International accreditations followed soon after its opening, including FACT accreditation that rewards excellence in cellular therapy. The program also became a contributing member of the Bone Marrow Clinical Trials Network, a network funded by the National Institutes of Health.

“The clinical trials network offers the most advanced, multi-institutional clinical studies available,” says Edward Copelan, MD, the chair of hematologic oncology at Levine Cancer Institute. “That allows us to offer patients the clinical trials that offer the most cutting-edge treatments.”

The program’s increasing use of new, novel therapies has inspired a name change: The BMT program is now the transplant and cellular therapy program. The program uses emerging therapies like CAR-T and natural killer cells, two immunotherapies that empower a patient’s cells to recognize and destroy tumor cells, creating an effective treatment with fewer side effects than traditional therapies. In addition, the transplant and cellular therapy program is investigating how to further improve the use and effectiveness of existing drugs.

These treatments and this research give hope to patients with malignant and non-malignant blood disorders, including acute and chronic lymphomas, multiple myeloma, sickle cell disease and myelodysplastic syndrome. The excellent outcomes of this program have put it in the top tier of transplant and cellular therapy programs.

More Patients, More Happy Endings 

As the program’s prominence has increased, so have the numbers of people who come here and the distance they travel – recent patients have come here from Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio and New Jersey for transplants. And now, the team can treat even more patients. A second unit opened in October 2018, expanding the number of beds from 16 to 46. It’s allowed more patients to receive cutting-edge cellular therapy treatments, as well as the personal care that’s closely associated with the Levine Cancer Institute name.

“Patients who come here feel a sense of collaboration. The nurses, physicians, advanced care practitioners, pharmacists, transplant coordinators and social workers on our team work closely together for one mission – the best care for our patients,” says Dr. Copelan. “No single person who helps our patients is more important than any other person, and patients get a sense of that teamwork. It makes them feel more secure.”

For Ashley, this sense of teamwork made a difficult time more manageable.

“Asking for help is the hardest thing for me to do. I like to do things by myself and on my own, and realizing that I couldn’t do it all was really hard,” she says. “But any time I told the nurses that something didn’t seem right, they were right on top of it. Even if I didn’t say something, they somehow just knew.”

Dr. Copelan says that he loves working in this field because it allows the team to give patients the most powerful of gifts: to have their lives back. Fifty days have passed since Ashley’s transplant, and she says that her energy is coming back, and she’s already returning to normal life. As she talks about her transplant, two little voices – one 10-month-old girl and one three-year-old boy – call to their mom. The little girl wants to play, and the little boy is excited about his swim lesson that afternoon. All of the cutting-edge research and clinical trials that are performed in this program are done for moments like this: a mom savoring moments of normalcy with her children.

“Right now I can say that I’m going to be able to watch my kids grow up,” Ashley says. “That was the big question: If I didn’t have this transplant, how long would I be around for them? Now I get to be here for them.”