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Published on August 01, 2019

Cathy and Jim Hegg

New Lymphoma Treatment – CAR-T – a Major Medical Breakthrough

It’s called a living drug, and it gives your immune system a turbo boost to find and kill cancer cells.

Avera is among the first health systems to offer CAR-T therapy in the U.S. since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat certain cancer types.

The new treatment offers the hope of a cure for patients who may have few options following other unsuccessful treatments.

Cathy Hegg, who lives near Woonsocket, S.D., received CAR-T therapy in January and in early February a PET scan showed no sign of cancer. That’s exciting for Hegg. She’s been treated for advanced diffuse large B-cell lymphoma since May 2017.

“I was just elated and blessed and my whole family was so happy,” Hegg said. “It was like a second chance at life.”

“Biggest Breakthrough in 100 Years”

Avera is among the first third of 99 sites approved by the FDA to give CAR-T to adult patients with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma who had prior therapies or are ineligible for a stem cell transplant.

Because of Avera’s accreditation with FACT (Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapies), it is the only health system in the region with the expertise to perform the therapy.

It is a type of immunotherapy, which strengthens the body’s own immune system to better attack cancer cells. The difference with CAR-T is that the patient’s T cells are extracted and genetically engineered to produce what’s called chimeric antigen receptors. These receptors target a specific antigen on tumor cells so that when they are infused back into the patient they can better recognize and kill cancer cells.

“This is a breakthrough therapy that has tremendous potential,” said Kelly McCaul, MD, hematologist with Avera Medical Group Hematology and Bone Marrow Transplant in Sioux Falls. “CAR-T represents another tool in our toolkit but it is the most revolutionary groundbreaking therapy for at least 100 years. I liken the development of CAR-T to the development of penicillin or insulin — it’s that big.”

Even more exciting is the widespread potential use of CAR-T for other cancer types. Research and clinical trials are underway to use it for more than 1,000 applications for different types of blood and solid tumor cancers such as lung, breast, and head and neck.

Cathy Hegg (right) and Ashley Van Hill DNPCathy Hegg (right) and Ashley Van Hill DNP

Eventually McCaul said the hope is that CAR-T will not only offer a cure, but a vaccination that can prevent people from getting certain types of cancers.

Avera’s expertise in transplant strategically sets the center up to continue to grow the program as more cellular immunotherapies are approved for other types of cancers.

Waiting for New Hope

Hegg is one of the patients for which it’s providing new hope. McCaul diagnosed her with stage IV lymphoma and put her on a regimen of chemotherapy that did not fully rid her of cancer. That meant she wasn’t eligible for a stem cell transplant.

Instead, she opted to take medications that kept her cancer from growing. When CAR-T was approved by the FDA and available, McCaul suggested she would be a good candidate.

About six months after her CAR-T therapy she and her husband are having fun with their six grandkids and she’s getting ready to go back to work as a teacher in the fall.

To have energy again is something she doesn’t take for granted. Following her chemotherapy she had trouble getting out of bed and had to do occupational, physical and speech therapy.

“Now things are more normal,” she said. “I can do more things and enjoy everyday life.”

How CAR-T Therapy Works

Step 1

Blood cells removed.

Step 2

Car-T cells extracted and sent to lab.

Step 3

Cart-T cells manufactured to include proteins called Chimeric Antigen Receptors.

Step 4

Cart-T cells are infused back into the body.

Step 5

Chimeric Antigen Receptors help T-cells find and kill cancer cells.

Learn more at or call Avera’s 24/7 Navigation Center at 866-572-3741.

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