Your Health | one year ago

Immunotherapy Trial Gives Renewed Hope to Patients with Incurable Prostate Cancer

Meet Rodney Glover, Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute's first patient who was enrolled in a novel clinical trial of CAR T-cell therapy for prostate cancer. Discover what his amazing results could mean for other patients with metastatic disease.

Six years ago, Charlotte resident Rodney Glover retired from Atrium Health. He had enjoyed over 30 years of “incredibly fulfilling” work in the heart catheterization lab, where he helped “stop heart attacks in their tracks.”

Just before his retirement, he started having some concerning urinary symptoms. His internist ordered a biopsy and later diagnosed him with prostate cancer. At the time, Rodney thought, “You die with prostate cancer, not from prostate cancer.”

Rodney was later referred to Dr. Earle Burgess, chief of Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute’s genitourinary oncology program and medical director of the clinical trials unit. Rodney’s scans showed metastatic prostate cancer that had spread to his bones. 

He initially responded well to chemotherapy, but then his prostate-specific antigen (a protein produced by the prostate and prostate cancer) levels began to rise. They continued to increase on a steady incline, which meant he needed more treatment. 

Burgess told Rodney about a new study involving chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. For over five years, this revolutionary therapy has been helping patients with blood cancers, curing many who would otherwise have died. Researchers are now trying to apply the treatment to patients with metastatic solid-state tumors, like prostate cancer.

CAR T-cell therapy is a personalized treatment that’s made by removing T lymphocytes (also called T cells) from the patient and engineering them to be able to recognize and attack the patient’s own cancer cells.

“It sounded like magic and science fiction to me!” said Rodney. “I’m in.”

In January 2022, Rodney became one of the first patients in the country and the first in the region to receive CAR T-cell therapy for prostate cancer.

Game-changing immune system training

Once a patient has metastatic prostate cancer, doctors usually focus on palliative care to extend their length and quality of life rather than trying to cure the disease. These patients can live five to 10 years with metastatic disease. 

The clinical trial is a novel, first-in-class approach to managing prostate cancer. “It’s giving us hope that we might really see a significant change in the natural history of the disease,” Burgess explained. “It has the potential to be a game changer for patients with incurable disease. It’s exciting to provide very early access to novel treatments and have the chance to improve the standard of care.”

Regardless of the type of cancer, CAR T-cell therapy involves the following steps: 

  • Collect the patient’s blood cells and separate them using an apheresis machine.
  • Collect and store the separated blood cells, including the white cells and T cells. 
  • Modify the T cells in a laboratory, genetically engineering them to attack a specific cancer cell target. (This process takes several weeks.)
  • Store modified T cells in a freezer until they can be infused into the patient.

The only difference among standard CAR T-cell therapies is the gene that’s inserted into the T-cell target. For Rodney’s treatment, the gene that was used is specific to prostate cancer.  

“We’re basically genetically engineering the T cells to attack prostate cancer cells,” explained Burgess. “We’re training the patient’s immune system to kill the cancer cells directly.”

To be eligible for the study, patients must have metastatic prostate cancer and have had prior therapy. Patients must be otherwise healthy since the study requires them to go two to three months without having another type of effective cancer therapy.

Rodney was healthy enough and had a low enough cancer burden (based on tumor size and number of cancer cells) to qualify. He was the first patient enrolled in the trial at Levine Cancer Institute. Since then, other patients have joined the study.

Leading cellular therapy program

Levine Cancer Institute (LCI) was selected among the limited number of sites for this study because it offers one of the nation’s leading cellular therapy programs. It is also known for its comprehensive transplant program, exceptional research and reputable genitourinary oncology program. Burgess added, “We also have a notable track record and a high volume of experience with CAR-T trials.”

LCI has disease-specific experts who specialize in treating patients with one type of cancer. For example, Burgess only treats patients with prostate and related cancers in the genitourinary tract. This allows him to provide the most effective, personalized treatments based on his patients’ unique needs.

“Our goal is to continue to have access to cutting-edge technologies, including CAR T-cellular therapy trials,” Burgess explained. “We’re hoping this treatment proves to be effective in patients so we can do even more with potential breakthrough therapies in the future.”

Ongoing support and future plans

While undergoing treatment, Rodney had to spend several weeks in a very secure and specialized unit for stem cell and CAR T-cell therapy. “It’s the BEST unit in the hospital,” he said. “The nurses are so smart and attentive. I can’t say enough good things about them! It was fantastic!”

During his stay at Levine Cancer Institute, he didn’t have any side effects, except for the occasional bout of boredom in his room. After leaving the hospital, however, he experienced extreme fatigue. Burgess helped him find a strength coach and a physical therapist, who helped him get back on track. 

Rodney’s wife, Terri, a retired nurse from Atrium Health, has been a huge support for him throughout his cancer journey. “After hearing that I had metastatic prostate cancer, it’s all I could focus on. Terri was my brain when mine stopped working,” he explained. “Terri is just amazing; she’s the strongest woman I know. But we were also conscious of taking care of the caregiver.”

Since receiving his modified T cells in January, Rodney hasn’t required any further therapy. “I’m self-sufficient now, and all my scans look good,” he said. “At age 70, I’m taking things day by day.” He sees Burgess every three to four weeks and has scans done every two months. 

Rodney and Terri’s future plans include attending an arts festival in Alabama in October and visiting the beach in November. 

Rodney’s advice for other patients: “If you’re a man age 50 or older, get tested for prostate cancer. It’s so easy. No one likes to deal with cancer. But it’s much better to be alive and healthy. So get tested!” 

Learn more about transplant and cellular therapy at Levine Cancer Institute.