UCSD Medical Center. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
UCSD Medical Center. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A 27-year-old man who’s battled leukemia since he was 9 years old became the first person in San Diego to receive a new type of immunotherapy, and his disease is now in remission, UCSD Health reported Thursday.

Robert Legaspi, 27, underwent treatment in May in a clinical trial of CAR T-cell therapy at the Moores Cancer Center and went into remission faster than in his three previous battles with his illness — in two months instead of the normal two years of chemotherapy and radiation.

“All three of my previous therapies were intense and overwhelming, especially when I was a kid, and it took two years to get back into remission each time,” said Legaspi.

“You get so depleted by chemotherapy and radiation that you feel like you’re not even there anymore,” he said. “And after putting that much time and energy into therapy, you’d expect a forever cure, but years later, it would come back and my life would be a nightmare again.”

According to UCSD Health, Legaspi suspected his leukemia was back earlier this year, after he returned home to San Diego from his wedding in the Philippines. After the relapse was confirmed, his doctor told him about the new type of treatment.

His own T-cells, part of his immune system, were collected through a blood draw. In a lab, the cells were genetically modified to produce special receptors on their surfaces, called chimeric antigen receptors, or CARs.

The CARs allow T-cells to recognize a specific antigen on tumor cells. After infusion back into Legaspi’s body, the CAR T-cells multiplied and, with guidance from their engineered receptor, recognized and killed his leukemia cells because they harbored that particular antigen.

His oncologist, Dr. Ted Ball, said it was exciting to watch the treatment work.

“We are motivated to provide this therapy option to more patients, but we’re also cautious, as CAR T-cell therapies are still in early-phase clinical trials, and there have been serious side effects, though generally manageable, said Ball, who directs the Bone Marrow Transplant Program at the Moores Cancer Center.

Ball also said that “we do not know the long-term effects of the treatment,”

UCSD Health reported that Legaspi only felt side effects for about one week.

With his health back, he’s pursuing an associate degree in nursing and hopes to work with cancer patients.

–City News Service