Junction woman first to join clinical study focusing on leukemia

Kathy and her husband, Jack, clasp hands in gratitude for the dramatic improvement she has had since beginning a clinical trial four months ago to control chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Kathy says she feels better, is regaining weight and her blood work is showing similar results. Their last name is omitted for privacy.

A Grand Junction woman and her doctor were shocked to learn earlier this year that she was the first patient in the country to join a new clinical study that deals with treatment for leukemia.

"I was surprised. I had no idea that was the case," said Dr. Jonathan King, an oncologist with Grand Valley Oncology, 2596 Patterson Road. "I knew it was early (in the study)."

Four months into the trial the patient, Kathy, has seen tremendous improvement in her symptoms, giving her hope for her future in dealing with the illness. The Daily Sentinel is withholding Kathy and her husband's last name for privacy reasons.

Kathy was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in September, but said she probably had the disease in her system for seven years before any diagnosis. King recommended a "wait and see" approach as the disease does not always require treatment for several years.

However, shortly after the diagnosis, Kathy began having trouble eating because she felt that the food would get stuck in her throat.

"It just got really bad," Kathy said. "I started losing weight real rapidly."

She had to dissolve her medication and mostly just ate yogurt and pudding for awhile. Later on, her husband, Jack, bought a high-tech blender and started liquifying her meals.

When she saw King again in December, he had just come from a conference where he learned about a new clinical study for untreated younger patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The study deals with controlling the disease and is aimed at blocking growth pathways for the leukemia.

Kathy was hesitant, but agreed to join the 19-month study that would include multiple rounds of infusions and a medication that she takes orally each day. The study will monitor her progress over a 10-year period.

When Kathy agreed to take part in the study and they entered her name into the system, she was the first name on the list. The study looks to enroll 720 people in more than 600 locations.

Grand Valley Oncology has since enrolled a second patient into the same study.

"Based on (King's) confidence, it gave me reassurance," Kathy said of signing on for the study. "He really wanted to help me."

Kathy's first infusion came in February, and she said the impact was immediate. Her lymph nodes decreased in size, and two days later she was texting pictures of herself eating chicken noodle soup to her friends and family.

Kathy started to gain some of the 30 pounds she had lost over the past couple of months and gradually started eating more.

"It basically gave her life back to her," Jack said of the trial.

King said this clinical trial is one of eight going on now at Grand Valley Oncology through a partnership with the Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah. King has made it a priority over the past five years to bring treatments like this to the Grand Valley to keep local patients close to home.

"We all hear about drugs and medical care as it progresses rapidly, but want to make sure patients have an opportunity to receive this in Grand Junction. We've been passionate about this," King said. "My biggest motivation is to get people treated with the best treatments locally. This helps us do that."

Since starting the treatment, Kathy said she feels better and her blood work is showing similar positive results.

She hopes that when finished, there will be little-to-no trace of the leukemia, and she looks forward to many years ahead with her family.

"If I hadn't done treatment, I don't know where I'd be, I think I'd be pretty bad off," she said. "As long as it continues to do what it's doing now, I don't see me not having a future."

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