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Cutting-edge cancer therapy at PCH gives Mesa boy new lease on life

Angel Torres with his parents, Cynthia Villagran and Angel Torres. (KTAR Photo/Kathy Cline)

PHOENIX — A 3-year-old Mesa boy battling cancer has a new lease on life.

Angel Torres is one of Arizona’s first pediatric patients to go into remission using a state-of-the-art therapy called CAR-T, administered at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Angel was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was 14 months old.

He was in remission shortly after being diagnosed but relapsed in March 2018. The second time, the cancer did not respond to aggressive chemotherapy.

“Just getting that news — it was like starting all over again,” said Cynthia Villagran, Angel’s mother. “We knew it would be even more difficult than the first time around.”

Villagran said her son was running out of options before the new therapy, which gained FDA approval in September 2017, was brought up.

“I was on Discovery Channel, and had seen a documentary about (CAR-T),” she said. “It was just shocking to hear that they had been successful. We were definitely all for it.”

Dr. Roberta Adams of Phoenix Children’s Hospital said the first step was harvesting some of Angel’s white cells. Then, she said, they were genetically engineered by a New Jersey lab “to recognize acute lymphoblastic leukemia … then infused back into him. His own cells look for, latch onto and kill leukemia cells.”

Adams said about half of the patients who get the therapy are free of
leukemia within a year.

Angel received his CAR-T cells on June 7, and by July 13 his family found out he was in remission.

“He actually enjoys coming to the hospital now,” Villagran said. “He’s super back to his social self.”

Adams said Angel will be closely monitored for at least a year.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the most common form of pediatric cancer; Adams said 90 percent of patients are cured with one round of treatment.

Phoenix Children’s Hospital is the only institution in Arizona and surrounding states of New Mexico and Nevada approved to administer CAR-T treatment to patients under 25.

Patients who are candidates for this therapy have likely relapsed more than once after receiving more traditional therapies such as chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants.

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