Gary Bush says it must have been divine intervention that led him to oncologists at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James).
The former longtime union carpenter from Beavercreek, Ohio, had routine blood work as part of an annual physical in February 2007. A clerical error resulted in him going back to have his cholesterol checked again. His blood clotted in the vial twice, raising a red flag that led to a CBC (complete blood count) test. His white blood cell count was very high – a warning sign of a potential blood cancer. His primary care doctor referred him to a Dayton-area oncologist, where he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, or CLL. About 15,000 people are diagnosed with the disease annually.
Within a week, Gary was on chemotherapy four days a week. His cancer went into remission for about 18 months but came back in the summer of 2010.
During his remission, Gary became an expert in his own disease – he and his daughters began researching oncologists across the United States to learn who was conducting the most promising research for CLL. All signs pointed to John Byrd, MD, of the OSUCCC – James, who serves as principal investigator of an $11.8 million National Cancer Institute SPORE (Specialized Program of Research Excellence) translational grant for leukemia.
Gary’s health insurance at the time was out of network at the OSUCCC – James, so he decided to try a second chemotherapy regimen in Dayton in January 2011. When that treatment failed, and his oncologist said he had nothing else to offer him, Gary decided – coverage or not – to see Dr. Byrd at the OSUCCC – James.
He recalls that Dr. Byrd told him more about his cancer diagnosis in an hour than he had learned in the years since his diagnosis. When Dr. Byrd asked him why he came to Columbus for a second opinion, Bush said, “I’m broken and I believe from everything I’ve read about you, Dr. Byrd, that you are the only person who can fix me.” Dr. Byrd told him he thought he could do that.
Gary qualified for an experimental clinical trial to test what is now known as ibrutinib (Imbruvica®), the first drug designed to target Bruton’s tyrosine kinase – a protein essential for CLL-cell survival and proliferation. Unlike other CLL therapies, ibrutinib kills malignant B cells but has little effect on healthy T cells. This leaves the patient’s immune system largely intact, enabling patients to remain healthier during treatment.
Gary enrolled in Dr. Byrd’s ibrutinib study in May 2011. He takes oral medication once a day and has experienced no side effects from treatment. This May, he will have been cancer-free for three years. He travels to Columbus every three months for follow up and has his blood count monitored monthly from his hometown.
Gary continually talks about how he “feels blessed” to have found the right medical team. As he puts it, “I was stage 4. I was looking at cemetery lots, but then I met Dr. Byrd and got on this clinical trial, and it’s like I got a whole new lease on life.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ibrutinib in late 2013 for the treatment of mantle cell lymphoma (MCL) and in February 2014 for CLL, which is very exciting news for patients with these diseases. Thanks in large part to the work of Dr. Byrd and his research colleagues, ibrutinib went from being an investigative compound to an FDA-approved drug in a matter of five years.
OSUCCC – James researchers, who realize there are no routine cancers and thus no routine treatments, continue to study ibrutinib in other cancers.
For Gary, this bench-to-bedside research story has allowed him to enjoy his two grandchildren (one of whom was born when he was undergoing his second round of treatment), participate in his church and continue to enjoy a strong quality of life.
Visit cancer.osu.edu for more information on ibrutinib and treatment options for blood cancers at the OSUCCC – James.