By Joan Kelley Walker
One of Toronto’s most anticipated events returned after a two-year hiatus. The Nashville-themed “Scrubs in the City” event took place on June 2 at Evergreen Brick Works in support of The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). There were plenty of cowboys and cowgirls present, hoping to help others in need. To date, supporters have raised more than $7.3 million, and that money has gone toward supporting some of the most critical needs at SickKids. This year went off without a hitch, raising awareness and funds that will be used to support a crucial Blood & Marrow Transplant/Cellular Therapy (BMT/CT) Program for a new Cellular Therapy Facility at SickKids. This will be the first of its kind in Canada. SickKids can harness the power of the immune system to fight cancer and other diseases using a patient’s own cells.
I wanted to dig a little deeper and learn how Scrubs in the City really helps. What is “cellular therapy,” and how will the new facility help children and youth? I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Donna Wall, Section Head of Blood and Marrow Transplant/Cellular Therapy, Division of Haematology/Oncology at SickKids. “We are in an exciting time where research into childhood cancer and blood disorders has led us to the point where we can work with the child’s or a donor’s blood to treat cancers and severe infections as well as help manage immune reactions in what has only, until recently, been dreamed about at the level of science fiction. The Cellular Therapy Facility at SickKids is designed to be able to take a child’s or donor’s young blood-making immune cells and give them the ability to target their cancer, infection, or other misbehaving cells — engineering treatments that use living cells,” says Dr. Wall. “Strategically located within SickKids and closely linked with the Research Institute and the many clinical teams at SickKids, the Cellular Therapy Facility is responsible for the handling, manufacturing, and delivery of the personalized treatment to children and youth with cancer or blood disorders — a treatment often starting with their own cells.
“Given our early success with cellular and gene therapy treatments, we anticipate that what is a bold experimental treatment today will rapidly move to widely-used treatment for children and youth, allowing us to treat severe immune/blood disorders, including cancer, more precisely; potentially improving outcomes and making treatments safer,” she says. SickKids is currently treating many children and youth who have exhausted all standard treatment options. This facility will help provide them with new therapeutic options. “It is unbelievably rewarding to be able to offer treatments that carry an option that can be truly transformative,” says Dr. Wall. “The process of developing cell products that are personalized for each child is a labour of love and needs a team with the tools to deliver products on time. With the support of the funds raised, we are building a robust platform and team to deliver cell products for the next generation. Funding will speed up our program and allow us to bring more complex strategies to the clinical treatments.” The hope is that children and youth will be able to benefit from cellular therapies developed by scientists from SickKids.
These types of treatments will help children like Marky, who was diagnosed with cancer when he was just three years old. His official diagnosis was Ph+ acute lymphoblastic leukemia with mixed-lineage leukemia rearrangement, which was aggressive and resulted in an immediate transfer to the intensive care unit at SickKids. Marky spent the first year of treatment as an inpatient as he bravely battled through chemo while fighting off infections. SickKids became his family’s home. He slowly started to improve; however, this was short-lived because his cancer returned and a bone-marrow transplant was needed. He returned to SickKids facing the fight of his life. His only hope was a new treatment for blood cancer called CAR-T cell therapy. The team at SickKids started preparation for CAR-T cell therapy immediately and thankfully Marky responded quickly. Once his leukemia was under control, he was able to have his cells harvested and sent for manufacturing in the US, which took six to eight weeks, then doctors infused them into Marky’s body to help kill off the remaining cancer cells. Marky managed the entire process with relatively few side effects, and he was able to return home after a month. Marky was given the news that he was in remission and has not looked back since. He is currently a happy, healthy, and thriving eight-year old. His mother, Heidi Czutrin, shared that knowing he was under the care of the SickKids’ staff — composed of some of the best health-care providers on the planet — offered a tremendous amount of comfort. “Being able to receive this life-saving treatment at one of the best children’s hospitals in the world gives you the sense that you are always in good hands. I know the staff looked after Marky and me as if we were their own family,” she says.
For me, as a mother, I can’t even imagine having to face this kind of unforeseen battle. I am writing this on Mother’s Day, and I want to acknowledge the tremendous strength of the children and their parents going through a childhood cancer journey. Marky’s mother’s words left me with hope, because when we build facilities like SickKids, we help save lives.
“It is difficult to find the right words to say because ‘thank you’ doesn’t seem like enough. We are so lucky to live in Toronto, the home of SickKids, and it is because of the support of the donors and event sponsors that a family like ours, who have been through so much, can come out on the other side and call ourselves lucky. You should just know that it is because of all of you that kids like Marky can get not just a second, but a third chance at life — and these kids deserve it,” Czutrin says.
To donate, go to sickkidsfoundation.com/scrubs.