Finding the Power to Fight Cancer—From Within

Using his own immune system to fight chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Russell Powell credits CAR T-cell therapy with helping him battle cancer.

Russell Powell has traveled the world, from Argentina and Brazil to Singapore, Taiwan and China. The Scotch Plains, New Jersey, native also did two tours in Vietnam during a 20-year career in the Army.

“I’ve been to most places I can think of,” Powell said recently from his home in Waldorf, Maryland, southeast of Washington, D.C.

In retirement, the 82-year-old Powell maintained two passions: Traveling, especially on cruise ships, and playing golf. Except for a brief bout with prostate cancer in 1996, Powell has been physically fit and in good health all his life.

A few years ago, however, he noticed swelling under his jaw. His physician performed a biopsy and, upon discovering Powell had chronic lymphocytic leukemia, referred him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he participated in a clinical trial through the National Cancer Institute. After about a year in the trial, Powell felt he wasn’t making as much progress as he would have liked. He then received additional chemotherapy for about a year, without much headway.

That’s when Powell’s oncologist introduced him to a clinical trial offered at Jefferson for adults with relapsed or refractory chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL). This trial modifies some of the patient’s own T cells (a type of white blood cell), converting them into chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells to treat cancer.

Russell with his physician in a patient exam room
Russell with his oncologist Dr. Matthew H. Carabasi.

CAR T-cell therapy is a new and innovative treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. Through a process called leukapheresis, some of a patient’s T cells are collected and sent to a lab. While there, scientists insert a gene into these cells that allows them to recognize and attack the CLL/SLL cancer cells.

Patients who qualify for the clinical trial receive study-related medical care and laboratory tests at no cost. After his doctors determined he met the eligibility requirements, Powell enrolled in the trial in June 2019.

“Especially going a couple years with the other treatments and then having success in a few months with immunotherapy, it does seem to be very promising for me and others,” Powell said. “I feel very comfortable that I’ll get a few more years on this Earth—if I’m careful crossing the street.”

Dr. Matthew H. Carabasi, a medical oncologist at Jefferson and lead investigator on the trial, said Powell’s local care team referred him to Jefferson because it was the closest site to offer this type of clinical trial.

“Immunotherapy is without a doubt one of the most promising treatment modalities available for elderly patients, especially with otherwise incurable cancer,” Carabasi said. “These patients often can’t tolerate high-dose chemotherapy or other modalities we’ve traditionally used to treat cancer.”

Clinical research nurse Allison Scott said participation in clinical trials—especially when traveling some distance for them—is a partnership that includes the patient and patient’s family, hospital personnel, the study’s sponsor and the patient’s local physicians.

Russell with this wife Renee in a hospital garden area
Russell with his wife and support system Renee.

“Russell was very optimistic from the beginning, and his wife Renee was an incredible support system for him,” Scott added. “It was a pleasure for us to have a fantastic patient like him.”

Powell continues to receive care from his local physicians and visits Jefferson every three months for checkups. He has lost some weight and still needs to rebuild his strength to get back on the golf course.

“I have no concerns at this time about my medical condition being my demise, which is a nice feeling to have,” he said. “But I never felt that way. My wife worries about me more than I worry about myself. She takes good care of me, and that’s very helpful.”

Renee credited her husband’s confidence with helping him get through this rough patch.

“Especially our time at Jefferson, because that was the unknown for us,” she said. “I told him we were getting ready to go on an adventure.”

As for his upcoming travels, Powell has already booked two cruises: One this year and another in 2021. Both are smooth-jazz cruises to the Caribbean he’s gone on annually for more than a decade.

Powell has visited practically every island in the Caribbean. His friends ask him where he will be stopping this time.

“I have no idea,” he said, “and I don’t care.”

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