She Batted Away Cancer and Threw Out the First Pitch at the Rangers Game

By Patrick McGee

In baseball, teams recruit certain players, train them hard and send them onto the field to beat the opposing team. Scientists have recently found a way to recruit certain blood cells, train them to fight cancer and send them back into the body to beat cancerous cells.

Katie Thomson was one of the first patients in the nation to try this innovation in clinical research earlier this year, and it worked; it saved her life.

To celebrate, Katie threw out the first pitch at the Texas Rangers game on Sept. 23.

The 14-year-old high school freshman from Burleson was first diagnosed with leukemia when she was 10 years old. Her body ached, and she had bruises everywhere, even inside her mouth. A minor fall produced a huge black bruise.

When she went to the emergency room doctors said it was almost certainly leukemia.

“Her blood was just packed with leukemia cells,” Katie’s mother, Jessica Thomson, said. “Her blood was 98 percent leukemia cells.”

The official diagnosis came back as high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“We didn’t use the word ‘cancer’ for a long time,” Mrs. Thomson said. “We just said, ‘You have leukemia, it’s a blood infection,’ because we didn’t want to scare her right away, but eventually someone let it slip out, and she was like, ‘I have cancer?’ and then she got really scared.”

Chemotherapy curtailed her immune system and the 10-year-old was hit with an onslaught of medical problems: a fungus infection in her lungs and liver, an infection in her intestines and a respiratory virus. The steroids she took caused steroid induced diabetes. She dropped from 60 to 45 pounds and missed a year of school. Worst of all, the leukemia was as strong as ever.

“We were frantic trying to save her because nothing seemed to work. They were giving her more and more chemo. She was getting sicker and sicker. Her little body was just suffering so we were just researching anything we could find, and we found information on CAR-T,” Mrs. Thomson said referring to the new treatment that takes out some cells and trains them to fight cancer before reintroducing them to the body.

Katie’s doctors wanted to try a bone marrow transplant first. They tried it; it was also difficult but it seemed to work.

The family returned to normal life. In early 2017, Katie’s father, Roy Thomson, cleared land on property he bought in Burleson and began to build a new family home. Katie enjoyed art and math and made it into the National Junior Honor Society at school. Then in late 2017, Katie noticed her legs had red marks, a telltale sign of leukemia.

“The night she showed us the marks on her leg we were pretty sure she had relapsed. That was probably the worst night of our lives. My husband and I just laid there, we tossed and turned, we cried, we prayed. We knew what the doctors were going to say the next day. And Katie knew, so she cried all night. It was just awful,” Mrs. Thomson said. “I was terrified. We thought we were out of options.”

The next day doctors confirmed their worst fears and suggested another bone marrow transplant. Katie’s parents knew how hard that was on her so they asked about CAR-T again.

The family was referred to Dr. Ted Laetsch, a pediatric oncologist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, who was part of the CAR-T clinical research trial. Katie’s parents went to Dallas to talk to him.

“We were nervous, but in our minds, it was our only hope. The studies and the trials were so promising that we were excited to have that available to us,” Mrs. Thomson said.

Katie, too sick to leave her room at another hospital, wanted to know every detail. She talked to Dr. Laetsch on FaceTime. She liked him and what he had to say. She was ready to try this new treatment.

“I wanted to get it over with so I could start getting better,” she said.

She told her parents, “I can beat this,” and she told her father to keep building the house.

Dr. Laetsch sought to help Katie by recruiting her T-cells, white blood cells that carry out an important search-and-destroy mission in the immune system. T-cells patrol the body looking for abnormalities and infections and attack them when found. CAR-T therapy starts with harvesting T-cells from the patient and in November 2017, Katie became one of the first pediatric patients in the world to try it. Children’s Health doctors put a stint in her neck and circulated the blood in and out of her body six times, taking out T-cells along the way. The process was nothing compared to what Katie had been through before; for part of the procedure she fell asleep.

“It didn’t hurt at all,” she said.

The T-cells were sent to a lab in New Jersey where they were programed to kill her B-cells, the cells making leukemia. The lab reproduced the cells in the billions. In January, Children’s Health doctors put the specially engineered cells back in her. She was sent home and told to return when she developed a fever. The family made the hour-long drive home and as soon as they arrived the fever came on strong. One hundred and six degrees.

“That means those T-cells were storming in her body, that’s what Dr. Laetsch said. They were storming in her body and going crazy on the cancer cells,” Mrs. Thomson said.

There were some temporary side effects: neurotoxicity caused her to talk strangely then to lose her ability to talk for several days. Katie’s fever came and went for 10 days. But the family said this was nothing compared to what she went through with chemotherapy.

She returned home and was back to school in a month and a half. The family home was finished, and her favorite part is her room “because it’s cozy.” She enjoyed her cocker spaniel, Dolly, at home and her art and ballet classes at school.

The newly programmed T-cells have killed all of Katie’s B-cells so her body can no longer produce antibodies. Earlier this month Children’s Health doctors trained her and her mother how to inject antibodies into her stomach every week. The family sees this as a small price to pay and noted that they formed a strong bond with Children’s and the doctors who saved Katie.

“We are all in love with Dr. Laetsch because he saved our girl. He really did,” Mrs. Thomson said. “We couldn’t love him more.”


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