Lymphoma Patient in Complete Remission, Thanks to CAR T-Cell Therapy at UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute

By Marty Trieschmann

For proof ask non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) survivor, Bob Baine, 72, of Little Rock. Diagnosed a year ago with the aggressive lymphoma that attacks the lymphatic system, the retired manufacturing CEO is in complete remission after receiving chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy at UAMS’ Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

“I’m floating on air,” said Baine of his miraculous recovery. “I can barely touch the ground.”

Baine is indeed one of the lucky ones beating lymphoma, a cancer the American Cancer Society estimates will kill 19,900 people this year — the same cancer that took the life of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994 and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2018.

“Average survival from this type of cancer that is resistant to conventional chemotherapy is very short,” said Muthu Veeraputhiran, M.D., a UAMS Cancer Institute hematologist/oncologist who treated Baine. “Less than 10 percent of patients live six months, so Bob’s recovery is extraordinary.”

The Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at UAMS is the first and only cancer center in Arkansas approved to provide the CAR T-cell therapy. UAMS began providing the therapy in December 2019, and it is now a lifesaving treatment option for patients with specific types of NHL who have failed at least two other treatments. UAMS also offers CAR T-cell therapy for patients with acute leukemia and relapsing multiple myeloma.

“We are able to offer this novel and cutting-edge therapy due to the excellent transplant team that can manage the most complicated patient scenario with the best possible outcomes, certified as a Transplant Center of Excellence by all major insurance providers and having received the highly coveted quality accreditation by FACT (Foundation of Accreditation of Cellular Therapy),” Veeraputhiran said. “This shows our commitment to bringing revolutionary therapies to Arkansans.”

Baine is only the 16th lymphoma patient to be treated with the novel therapy, but early indications are that it’s a game-changer. UAMS CAR T-cell patients range in age from 30s to 70s – Baine being the oldest –and are responding remarkably well to the treatment.

“The data shows that CAR T cures around 50-80% of the lymphomas,” said Veeraputhiran. “Data shows that attaining complete remission at three months usually means that after two years this type of lymphoma doesn’t come back.”

That’s good news for Baine who hopes to travel, play golf and fish again one day. The former low-handicap golfer and twice-a-week tennis player lived an active lifestyle and traveled extensively before a routine wellness exam uncovered atrial fibrillation. In the process of treating the heart condition, doctors found a tumor in his abdomen and discovered it was lymphoma.

Baine underwent two unsuccessful rounds of chemotherapy before he was referred to the Cancer Institute.

Finding Hope at UAMS

Bob Baine and his wife, Beth.

Baine pre-lymphoma and his wife, Beth, are looking forward to many more Holidays together.

At UAMS, Veeraputhiran confirmed Baine’s diagnosis as diffuse B cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and recommended a different type of chemotherapy. In all, Baine received three different types of chemotherapy and several rounds of radiation, but none put him in remission.

“We were just watching the lymphoma grow with conventional chemotherapy,” said Veeraputhiran. “His chances of making it were low given all the treatments we tried.”

Baine’s only chance at a cure was CAR T-cell therapy in which his T cells were harvested, reengineered to attach and destroy cancer cells and infused back into his body.

While the UAMS care team was preparing him for the therapy, he was admitted to the hospital due to low blood pressure and dangerous blood counts.

“He became quite weak while we were waiting for re-engineered cells to ship back to be infused to him,” Veeraputhiran said. “He needed round-the-clock care.”

CAR T-cell Therapy

CAR T-cell therapy uses new technology to genetically modify a patient’s own T cells, enabling them to seek and destroy cancer cells. T cells are a type of white blood cell integral to the immune system.

This is how it works:

The patient’s T cells are extracted using a process known as apheresis. During this process, the blood is drawn from the patient and enters a machine that separates its components, including the T cells.

Then the T cells are sent to a lab where they are genetically modified using a virus that causes them to produce chimeric antigen receptors, which can detect and kill cancer cells.

While the T cells are being altered, the patient undergoes chemotherapy. After three to four weeks, the reengineered T cells are reintroduced into the patient’s bloodstream, and within few days they begin attacking the cancer.

Baine recalls getting one T-cell injection in May 2021 and has no memory of anything else until July 4. He experienced temporary confusion, hallucinations and memory loss, which are common side effects of the therapy.

Baine’s wife, Beth, whose first husband died of cancer, remembers his nonsensical rambling during recovery.

“She told me I had delusions of ants crawling on the ceiling, and apparently I repeated the word ‘building’ over and over. I was really disconnected from reality for a while,” said Baine.

Baine is happy to be alive but is quick to point out that CAR T-cell therapy, especially at his age, is hard. He lost 60 pounds and most of the use of one leg over the course of his treatment but is slowly getting his strength back.

“The treatment has been extremely difficult on my body, but it does feel like I got a gift that I didn’t know I needed.”

“I’m just so thrilled we have UAMS in Little Rock,” adds Baine, who knew little about UAMS until his diagnosis.

“I thought it was more of a school that trained doctors,” he said. “I had no idea the Cancer Institute existed.”

“I can’t really describe how impressed I am with UAMS, especially the nursing staff. It’s unbelievable. When I was so sick in the hospital for so many days, the nurses were cheering me on. I felt like they had an emotional investment in my recovery, and that meant a lot to my family.”

A New Normal

Baine is adjusting to life after cancer. His memory still isn’t 100%, but it is coming back, along with his appetite.

“When I was first diagnosed, I hoped to get well enough to have a few more years, but now I feel like I have my life back.”

Even through his face mask, it’s easy to see his excitement at the thought of seeing his grandchildren at Christmas. He is looking forward, not back.

“I still have goals and a bucket list,” said Baine, which includes playing golf in Ireland and at Augusta National, fishing and watching his grandchildren grow and find their way.

He also looks forward to spending time with his wife, Beth, who he said is an “angel.” The couple celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary on Dec. 7.

Michael Birrer, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Cancer Institute said, “This is just one of the many innovative cancer therapies offered at the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, which are having a positive impact on the lives of cancer patients in Arkansas. We anticipate many more in the future.”