SEATTLE After nearly a decade battling cancer, Bellinghams Lynsie Conradi, 23, is finally on her way to beating the disease.
This summer Lynsie was cured of leukemia with a groundbreaking therapy that used her own immune system to target and kill cancer cells. The therapy took less than 10 days to rid her body of the leukemia shed fought off and on for the better part of eight years.
She's currently recovering from a stem cell transplant she received in late August that should give her the best chance of staying in remission.
Lynsie was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at age 15. She received chemotherapy for a year while living at Ronald McDonald House near Seattle Childrens hospital, said Donna Rainford, her mother.
After another 16 months of commuting from Bellingham to Seattle once a month for treatment, the then-teen went into remission for two years before she started to come down with what her mom thought was a cold.
It turned out she had pneumonia, and her cancer was back, Rainford said. Doctors medically induced a coma and put Lynsie on life support, Rainford said.
The young patient came out of the coma on her 20th birthday, Rainford said. The coma caused a brain injury, and Lynsie had to relearn how to walk, use her hands, and even swallow, Rainford wrote in an email.
"The docs told her it would take her three months to be able to walk again," Rainford wrote. "She totally rocked that rehab unit and walked out of there in six weeks!"
About the time Lynsie was ready to move back home in November 2010, she met fellow cancer patient Rodney Conradi at Ronald McDonald House, Rainford wrote.
The two visited one another throughout the next year, and Lynsie went into remission. In January 2012, Rodney was admitted to a hospital in Yakima with extreme pain, Rainford wrote. "He proposed to her on Valentine's Day, and as sick as he was, and in an immense amount of pain, he still got down on one knee and proposed to Lynsie," Rainford wrote.
They married two days later in the basement of the hospital. He died shortly after of Ewings sarcoma.
Each time Lynsie returned home from treatment she tried to attend school, and each time she relapsed. She got as far as being a Certified Nursing Assistant in a nursing program before relapsing the second time. She didnt have time to return to school again before routine blood tests this spring showed her leukemia was back.
Lynsie was given a 20 percent chance of survival after relapsing in March 2013.
"This is the third time she's had it, so her prognosis is kind of poor," Rainford said. "At one point she quit responding to chemotherapy and she still had too much cancer left to get a (stem cell) transplant."
That's when doctors at Seattle Children's asked if she would participate in a clinical trial that could improve her chances.
Researchers at Seattle Children's Research Institute removed some of Lynsie's T-cells, reprogrammed them to recognize a specific protein found on leukemia cells, and returned them to her blood to do what they were made to do: kill invaders in the body.
The cells were programmed to recognize CD19, a protein also found on normal B-cells, which help fight infection, said Dr. Rebecca Gardner, a researcher with Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research. Doctors gave Lynsie antibodies during treatment to supplement her compromised immune system while the T-cells killed both cancer and B-cells.
Compared to the side effects from chemo, the T-cell therapy was like having the flu.
"Her temp was up to 103 and her blood pressure dropped," Rainford said. "It wasn't even a full day. She woke up and she was hungry and thirsty."
Perhaps more incredible for the family was how fast the therapy worked.
"In seven days, this therapy did more than three months of chemotherapy," Rainford said.
Lynsie is still not up to talking much, so she wrote to The Bellingham Herald with her mom's help.
When she found out she was cancer free after the therapy, she was in disbelief.
"I have had cancer for so long, I just felt like I was just meant to always have cancer," she wrote. "(I was) overjoyed really because I really didn't think it would work."
STEM CELL TRIAL
For patients with several relapses and advanced leukemia, stem cell transplant is the treatment of choice and the best cure, said Dr. Marie Bleakley, a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center researcher.
Patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia who relapse and get a stem cell transplant while leukemia cells are still detected have about a 20 percent chance of survival, Gardner said. Those numbers soar to about 70 percent if no leukemia is detected, she said.
The success of the T-Cell therapy meant Lynsie would have a fighting chance with a transplant.
The young patient entered a second clinical trial to get a transplant at Fred Hutchinson in late August. Her brother Dyllon donated stem cells for the graft.
One way the grafts work is the immune cells in the transplant can recognize and attack hiding bits of leukemia that can cause relapse, Bleakley said.
"They can also cause graft-versus-host disease as a complication," Bleakley said. "That's the patient's body attacking the transplant."
Along with colleagues at Yale, Bleakley explored the hypothesis that certain immune cells in grafts are more likely to cause the disease. The researchers identified specific cells they thought might cause the problem, and figured out how to remove them from grafts before transplant. So far 35 patients have received the trial-altered transplants at the two locations.
"It's too early to tell, but we're very encouraged by the results so far," Bleakley said. "We were really thrilled (Lynsie) got a good remission. We're hoping this will help her stay in remission and cause minimal side effects."
Lynsie will live in isolation for the next year while she recovers from the transplant. Rainford will not work so she can stay home to care for her daughter.
"My greatest support for me has definitely been my mom because she has been by my side the whole time," Lynsie wrote. "The love and support I have is nationwide and I feel very blessed for this."
Lynsie's results are some of the first in her immunotherapy trial, but other institutions already have started testing similar procedures in their own trials, Gardner said.
"We were the first people on the West Coast to do it," Gardner said.
The trial is open to enrollment for those between 1 and 26 years old, said Mary Guiden, public relations specialist at Seattle Children's.
The immunotherapy trial is part of a childhood cancer research collaborative "Dream Team" funded by St. Baldrick's Foundation, Stand Up To Cancer, and the American Association for Cancer Research. The team, announced in April 2013, includes researchers from seven hospitals.
Collaborative research is nothing new for Seattle Children's: The hospital was one of the founding members of the Childhood Cancer Group, which merged with three similar groups in 2000 to form the integrated Childhood Oncology Group.
Studying childhood cancers is nearly impossible at a single institution, said Dr. Doug Hawkins, associate chief of oncology and hematology at Seattle Children's. The collaborative shares research data, often before publication, in the hopes that by working together researchers will find cures faster.
"It's possible to study common adult cancers at a single big cancer center where patients are treated for breast cancer or colon cancer," Hawkins said. "But with pediatric cancer, even a common one, you may only see five or 10 patients a year - you may never be able to do a study. The only way is to work together."
HOW TO HELP
Donations to help Lynsie Conradi, including financial assistance so her mother can stay home to care for her, may be made at WestEdge Credit Union at 2501 James St. in Bellingham. Mention either Lynsie Conradi or Donna Rainford to direct it to the proper account.
Follow Lynsie's story by searching Facebook for "Lynsie's Journey in Beating Cancer."
This story was updated Oct. 21 to reflect a change in accepted age ranges for the trial.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The American Cancer Society is celebrating 100 years of fighting cancer this year. Locally, PeaceHealth St. Joseph opened it 35,000-square-foot Cancer Center in Bellingham late last year. The Bellingham Herald asked local cancer survivors and volunteers to share their stories this month to highlight the progress that has been made in fighting these diseases.
Stories in this series will be published throughout October.
The closest office of the American Cancer Society is in Everett, at 3120 McDougall Ave., Suite 100. Call 425-741-8949 for more information. Or go online to cancer.org.
Relay for Life, the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, takes place in three locations in Whatcom County from May to July: Western Washington University, Lynden and downtown Bellingham. For more information or to sign up, go to relayforlife.org.