LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) -- A new breakthrough means hope for patients of one of the fastest-growing types of cancer, and doctors at UAMS have been paying especially close attention to this kind of treatment.

“If it had been a 20 percent response, that still would’ve been good. But at the dose levels, it’s over 50 percent, and so that looks very encouraging,” said Dr. Gareth Morgan, Director of the Myeloma Institute at UAMS.

Morgan referred to a recently-announced study about the use of CAR-T cells to treat patients with multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma is a cancer that stops the productions of healthy plasma cells and damage the immune system. It often results in bone tumors as it attacks the marrow that produces plasma and other white blood cells.

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 30,000 Americans are diagnosed with multiple myeloma each year, and roughly 12,000 will die from it. In the study, performed by Bluebird Bio and Celgene Corporation, patients who had previously relapsed were treated with anti-BCMA CAR-T therapy. T cells are white blood cells that are part of the immune system. In a lab, they can be modified into CAR-T cells that can attach to and destroy cancer cells that are otherwise resistant.

“We’ve used slightly toxic chemotherapy, and so, that’s given us some really good results,” Morgan stated. “But there’s a proportion of people that don’t do well with that type of treatment.”

And for those patients who do not respond to chemotherapy, this study offers the promise of a better quality of life.


“And it looks really encouraging that, for about 50 percent have responded to (date),” Morgan mentioned, “which is really exciting, because we’re not at a full dose level yet.”

Of the patients studied in the Bluebird trial, 73 percent of those who had been in the CAR-T therapy long enough to be tested showed a very good partial response, meaning they were either in remission or making progress toward remission. Morgan said, because this study took place in a clinical setting, it could realistically be available to patients in the next couple of years.

“I think that is feasible, and it’s where the whole field is going,” he explained. “And we want Arkansas to be at the front of these advances.”

Given the cost of equipment, Morgan believes doctors will take a sample of the patient’s blood and ship it to one of a handful of centralized labs, where other scientists can create the CAR-T cells and then send it back to the patient for an infusion.

UAMS is home to the oldest myeloma clinic in the United States, and remains one of the most advanced and respected in the country. Morgan believes, with its history and reputation, the UAMS Myeloma Institute could become home to one of those central labs.

“We kind of aim to be, sort of global leaders in this area,” he said, “which is a great thing for patients locally, and across the South, really.”

The UAMS Myeloma Institute sees roughly 500 new patients each year, in addition to those requiring continued treatment. Approximately half of those come from Arkansas, while most of the rest come from around the South. Morgan thinks CAR-T cell treatment could revolutionize treatment of many types of cancer.

“I think it gives you cause for optimism that, in the future, we’ll move away from more toxic treatments to these specific antibody-based treatments. New approaches with the immune system are going to allow us to really try and increase the numbers of cures. And I think it offers a cure potential for 30 percent of the total who now are really not responding well to our standard treatments,” Morgan said.