Kansas man is landmark patient for new, advanced cancer treatment

Better Health & Wellness

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KSNW) – A man from Winchester marks the first patient in the world to commercially receive Abecma CAR-T therapy to treat his multiple myeloma.

Bill Coppinger, a 66-year-old former contractor and grandfather of 10, has endured years of chemotherapy since his diagnosis seven years ago. The treatment has kept him alive but at a cost to his general wellness.

“So, at this point, I’m starting to kind of run out of options,” Coppinger said.

His wife, Sheryl, recalls a conversation with his doctor when the family scheduled his first chemotherapy treatment. Sheryl wanted to move it back to not interfere with his 60th birthday.

“And he went, nope, I get this birthday, you can have the next ones, and I’ve never forgot that,” Sheryl said.

The couple hoped for Bill to qualify for a trial of CAR-T therapy as it was being studied.

According to the National Cancer Institute, CAR stands for chimeric antigen receptors and the T is for T-cells, which protect us from infection and typically, kill cancer cells. Most cancers know how to avoid these T-cells. CAR-T therapy is the practice of drawing blood from patients, separating out millions of their T-cells, then genetically modifying their cells to re-learn how to fight cancer.

Dr. Ala Ola Abdallah with the University of Kansas Cancer Center says CAR-T therapy is given only one time, whereas most cancer treatments are given continually.

“Most of these patients, once they reach the point they need the CAR-T cells, they have very limited options with a survival of about five months up to nine months,” Dr. Abdallah said.

In trials, Dr. Abadallah says patients can have a high response rate, up to about 73% and even re-enter remission, which is rare.

“We’re talking about quality of life, that’s a very important element a lot of myeloma patients are missing,” Dr. Abdallah said.

On April 8, the Coppingers sat in a hospital room while a machine extracted Bill’s T-cells. A specialized team came with a cooler to cart Bills cells off.

One month later, the Coppingers were back at the University of Kansas Cancer Center for Bill to receive an infusion of his new, modified T-cells; 406 million of them to be exact.

“I guess you ought to have plenty to fight cancer with that,” Bill said.

While it’s too early to call CAR-T therapy a cure according to Dr. Abdallah, he urges people to look at the strides made in this area for myeloma patients.

“Let’s not forget, like in the 1990s, I believe that the survival rate was about two to three years. Now, we’re talking about 10 to 15 years,” Dr. Abdallah said.

Because of the timing of the infusion, Bill and Sheryl had to watch their granddaughter graduate from high school virtually, but it’s a short-term sacrifice for a long-term benefit.

“I told her I’d come dance at her wedding,” Bill says with a smile.

KSN spoke with the Coppingers several days after the infusion. Sheryl said Bill was doing “great.”

CAR-T Therapy is not yet considered a first line of defense against cancer, like chemotherapy or radiation. But, if you or someone you know has multiple myeloma, your doctor can give you more information about CAR-T therapy offerings. The closest location to Wichita for the Abecma CAR-T therapy is at the University of Kansas Cancer Center.

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