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Presidential Magnitude

Conquest - Summer 2009

Making a Difference in Everyday Lives

By DeDe DeStefano

A summer cold might have saved 23-year-old Audi Hill’s life.

In May 2007, as a student at Fort Hays State University in her hometown of Hays, Kan., she visited the student health center with cold symptoms. During the routine exam, a student training to become a doctor found a suspicious-looking mole on the side of Hill’s neck. She suggested Hill see a dermatologist, which she then did. The dermatologist removed the mole and determined that it was melanoma.

Melanoma patient Audi Hill

Hill traveled to Kansas City, four hours away, where clinicians performed a neck dissection, removing lymph nodes and surrounding tissue to see if the melanoma had spread. It had. With at least one sentinel node positive, Hill underwent interferon treatment in Kansas City for a year.

The cancer continued to spread. By June 2008, a tumor the size of a cantaloupe had developed in her abdomen and wrapped around one of her ovaries. While physicians removed the tumor and one of her ovaries and continued to suggest further surgeries, Hill’s father was reading about the promise of T-cell therapy. After doctors found that the cancer had spread to her ribs, adrenal glands, duodenum, pelvis and two spots on her back, her father suggested she make a trip to M. D. Anderson.

Traveling to M. D. Anderson required a five-hour drive to Denver and a 2½-hour flight to Houston.

“When we arrived, I was overwhelmed at first. I come from a town of about 1,000 people. M. D. Anderson is huge,” she said.

Her oncologist, Nicholas Papadopoulos, M.D., professor in the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology, soon put her at ease. Hill learned that she qualified for a study called “lymphodepletion plus adoptive cell transfer.” By harvesting her own immune system’s T cells, growing them in mass quantity and then re-infusing them into her body, Papadopoulos hoped to have Hill’s own immune system fight the cancer cells itself. Exactly what her father had read.

The tumor from Hill’s pelvis was removed in October 2008, and the T cells were grown from it. While the cells were being grown, she underwent additional chemotherapy.

By November, her T cells had grown to 115 billion, more than enough for infusion. She was ready to begin treatment. Almost immediately, her tumors began to shrink.

After six trips to Houston, during which she received one infusion of T cells, followed by 13 infusions of high-dose interleukin-2, she has seen dramatic changes. Both tumors on her back, one the size of a fist, are completely gone. Only a few small tumors remain, and they too are shrinking.

Hill was able to finish college during her treatment, and she continues to come back to M. D. Anderson for scans every two to three months.

When asked how she feels now, Hill says, “I feel awesome. And, to top it off, I am almost four months pregnant.”

Hill and her husband, Matt, found out they were expecting a baby after she finished her treatment.

The Hill baby is due to arrive on Thanksgiving Day.

Bush Endowment: Unleashing Creativity

Patrick Hwu, M.D. (left), and Nicholas
Papadopoulos, M.D.

The George and Barbara Bush Endowment for Innovative Cancer Research was established in 1999 during an event celebrating former President George H.W. and Barbara Bush’s 75th and 74th birthdays, respectively. Designed to honor the couple’s commitment to
M. D. Anderson through their years of service to the institution, the Bush Endowment provides scientists and physicians the freedom to unleash their creativity and pursue new pathways of discovery.

Through friends and supporters, the Bushes have celebrated raising more than $55 million in endowed funds for M. D. Anderson.

Science at work

In 2005, Patrick Hwu, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Melanoma Medical Oncology, received funding from the George and Barbara Bush Endowment for Innovative Cancer Research for studies in the area of immunotherapy. With support from the Bush Endowment, Hwu, Papadopoulos and others are developing ways to stimulate the body’s immune system against cancer.

Private gifts helped them identify T cells with the ability to specifically recognize melanoma antigens and grow these tumor-reactive T cells to large numbers in the lab. And that has led to the development of protocols for patients like Audi Hill.

DeDe DeStefano


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center