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Trials at UNC yield 'rebirth' for 2-time cancer survivor

Posted February 28
Updated March 1

— At the age of 60, Ian Dale of Cary feels like he's been born again, courtesy of custom cancer treatment at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

He was among the first to be treated with an emerging technique that uses a patient's own immune cells to attack invading cancer cells.

"We take one cell and turn it into a million cells, and then we infuse those million cells back into the patient that we got them from," Dale's doctor, Thomas Shea, said. "The major advantage of this is that your body is not going to reject its own cells."

The result, at least in Dale's opinion, is a miracle.

In January 2016, Dale was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma. Despite chemotherapy and radiation, he had a relapse in August. His cancer was aggressive. It spread to his liver and spleen, and the outlook with traditional therapies was grim.

"If I hadn't had any treatment at all, my life expectancy was four to six months, so now I'm quite a ways past that and feeling great," Dale said.

Ian Dale, cancer survivor

Shea, a UNC Lineberger member and medical director at the UNC Bone Marrow and Stem Cell Transplant Program, suggested that Dale participate in the trial in which researchers remove a patient's immune cells, called T cells, then genetically engineer those cells to go find and fight the cancer.

"If all goes well, the patient doesn't get sick, and the cancer goes away," Shea said.

Dale was one of three patients in his trial, and two of those three are in remission.

Shea is cautious about calling his work a cure, but said he is excited about the strides in cancer treatment.

"It's wonderful to have something new, particularly if it doesn't have a lot of side effects," he said. "There are patients that are out almost five years now after this kind of treatment for leukemia who had failed all sorts of standard treatments and experimental treatments. They're still in remission and look like they're doing great."

Ian Dale, cancer survivor

Dale, who battled prostate cancer in 2014 before his lymphoma diagnosis, calls the day his altered cells were injected his "rebirth."

"I have a whole new lease on life. I'm here when I probably wouldn't be," he said. "I actually had a scan a little less than two weeks ago and was given the all clear. I'm officially a survivor."

UNC Lineberger announced on Tuesday two new trials and has plans in the works for up to half a dozen for other kinds of cancer over the next two years. The work is funded in part by North Carolina's University Cancer Research Fund, state taxpayer money set aside to reduce deaths from cancer – the No. 1 cause of death in North Carolina – and to make the state a leader nationwide in cancer research.

“Cellular immunotherapies hold tremendous promise, and the studies we are conducting today can put us in a position to offer more effective cancer treatments in the future," said Dr. Norman E. Sharpless, director of the Lineberger Center.

Additional trials are in development for patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and other types of cancer.

People who want to learn more about those trials can contact Catherine Cheng at 919-966-4432 or catherine_cheng@med.unc.edu.

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