Client: dei Gratia Marketing Communications
Brief:  The Hope for Mia Cara Foundation requested a press release to shed light on recent developments in CAR T-cell cancer therapy. This cause had a profound impact on me and I was delighted when dei Gratia commissioned me to write the piece.
Date: December 2017

Mia Cara Ferreira is battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).

First person form Africa to receive groundbreaking cancer treatment: CAR T-cell therapy

Recent developments in precision medicine and gene therapy have ushered in a new era for alternative cancer treatments – raising hope and possibilities for children and young adults who suffer from cancers that are highly resistant towards conventional treatments. This came as great news to the family of Mia Cara Ferreira, a six-year old South African girl who has been battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) since 2015. Mia Cara’s parents are now seeking an alternative solution after she unexpectedly relapsed in May 2017, having had months of intensive treatment leading up to that point.

An entirely new, much anticipated class of treatment, known as CAR T-cell therapy, is causing a ripple of excitement within and beyond the medical world – and Mia Cara will be the first person from Africa to receive this treatment. Unlike conventional chemotherapy, CAR T-cell therapy is a gene-editing treatment by which the patient’s own cells are harvested and re-engineered to act as “killing machines” within the body.

The process involves the modification of T-cells (known as immune cells), after which they are reintroduced to the body to attack and destroy cancer cells. The treatment has been referred to as one of the most exciting developments in oncology and childhood leukemia in decades, and has yielded particularly good results with regards to the treatment of ALL.

Currently only available in the USA, CAR T-cell therapy has been described by medical professionals as nothing short of incredible. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) implemented a trial phase in August 2011, which saw an 83% remission rate within three months of treating the 68 children who participated in the study. Moreover, the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first CAR T-cell drug (Kymriah™) in August this year, which means that the benefits of its use outweigh the potential risks associated with its use.

This form of treatment stands in stark contrast to Mia Cara’s preceding reality: to receive another round of intensive chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant in South Africa. A suitable bone marrow donor would still need to be found and even then, Mia Cara would only have a 40% chance of entering remission.

Commenting on the promise that CAR T-cell therapy brings, Mia Cara’s father, José Ferreira said: “CAR T-cell therapy offers an alternative solution to the extremely risky process of receiving chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and radiation that Mia Cara would have to endure otherwise. She is only six years old and we are not willing to risk the long-lasting side effects of these therapies, which could include brain damage. Our wish as parents is to give our child the best chance of survival and to try minimise the risks and the side effects, especially since she relapsed after receiving intensive treatment for more than 21 months.”

Since her recent relapse, Mia Cara has been accepted as part of the ongoing CAR T-cell therapy programme at CHOP. She recently underwent the initial cell harvesting process – these cells are being modified in a laboratory and will be kept frozen until she is ready to start the next phase of treatment at CHOP, which is scheduled for 2 January 2018. Doctors are hopeful that, after being infused back into Mia Cara’s bloodstream, the re-engineered cells will continue to multiply and will potentially last for months – even years – preventing any further relapses and ridding her body of the cancer altogether.

CAR T-cell therapy is, however, still highly unaffordable – due to the specialised nature of the procedure – and will cost the Ferreira family over R10 million over the next two years. This excludes the laboratory costs which are covered as part of the trial and amounts to $454 000 (approximately R5.8 million).

Unfortunately, the family’s medical aid won’t cover these costs and they have embarked on various fundraising campaigns, via the Hope for Mia Cara Campaign, to raise the funds to help Mia Cara undergo this life-saving treatment. To date, the foundation has received R3.3 million. A further R6.4 million is necessary to reach the target, depending on the exchange rate.

Comments José: “Considering the shocking 4% recovery rate for those South Africans who undergo certain cancer treatment without a bone marrow donor, it is imperative that South Africa gains access to alternative solutions, such as CAR T-cell therapy. It is our sincerest hope that this treatment will ultimately change the future for so many other South African children who are in dire need of alternative treatment for ALL. It would make the world of difference if this treatment became available in our own country and across Africa.”

The Ferreira family acknowledges that there are likely hundreds of thousands of people on the African continent that are in desperate need of this treatment, and feel strongly that other parents, family members and friends of cancer patients deserve to share the hope that they now have for their daughter’s recovery. They are in process of registering a non-profit for this purpose and have already started discussions with various intuitions. They, together with friends, hope to get a handful of celebrities involved to up the drive for this campaign, and further aim to lobby one of the few pharmaceutical companies developing this treatment to bring the trial to South Africa.

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