Early on, their bond had nothing to do with cats.
Instead, they were 30-somethings joined in their determination to beat acute myeloid leukemia.
Caroline was the patient, an English mom desperate to see her 3-year-old son grow up.
Katy Rezvani, M.D., Ph.D., was her transplant doctor at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, passionate about her patients and convinced their immune systems could be harnessed to fight cancer through immunotherapy.
But at the time, in 2009, Rezvani could only offer Caroline a stem cell transplant, then another, and then another.
When Caroline was near death in the fall of 2011, she asked Rezvani if she knew anyone who would adopt her two cats. They had to go together, Caroline said. She couldn’t stand to see them separated.
The next weekend, Rezvani and her husband picked up the sisters, Roxy and Bella, and brought them to their new home. The beautiful felines offered consolation and even inspiration after Caroline died in early 2012. Rezvani knew it wasn’t the cancer or the stem cell transplants that had killed her patient, but complications from BKV hemorrhagic cystitis, an occasional side effect of the transplants.
Rezvani, who was born in Iran, and who escaped to England with her family after the revolution that saw the Shah’s fall, is a doctor and researcher who trained in London and Washington. She understood the challenge before her. To save future Carolines — to make stem cell transplants safer and more effective — she would have to target and eliminate the BK virus.
Rezvani might have spent the rest of her career in research labs and hospital rooms in London, her adopted home. But in the spring of 2012, she, her husband Richard and their little family — both cats had their own European Union passports — moved to Houston. Scientists at MD Anderson had admired Rezvani’s work and recruited her to continue her immunotherapy research there.
Clinical trial relieves BK virus symptoms in stem cell transplant patients
As Rezvani met her new patients, she saw many more with the hemorrhagic cystitis, and that made her even more determined to try to help them. By 2014, she had trained T cells — in the simplest terms they are like soldiers that can destroy specific invaders — to attack the BK virus. And, importantly, she was ready to infuse those special cells into patients in a clinical trial.
Today, more than 60 hemorrhagic cystitis patients who received the T cells have been able to leave the hospital. They still have the virus, Rezvani says, but are symptom-free.
Immunotherapy shows promise for other stem cell transplant side effects
Rezvani is thrilled with those results, but that’s not the end of her story.
“At least one of the complications of stem cell transplants is manageable now, but there are so many other things to work on,” Rezvani says. “One example is the JC virus.”
Also known as the John Cunningham virus, it’s a germ so common that most adults have been exposed to it with no ill effects. For those with weakened immune systems, however, it can lead to an often fatal brain disease known as progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, or PML.
Rezvani says the two viruses — BK and JC — are similar in structure and that the T cells that fight the BK virus appear to be effective against the JC virus as well.
“It’s too early to tell because we have only treated three JC patients, but I can confirm success with them,” she says.
If Rezvani’s T cells continue to help PML patients, who may have cancer, HIV or an autoimmune disease, it will be cause for celebration.
“There’s not been anything for them until now,” Rezvani says.
An unwavering commitment to advancing immunotherapy and helping more patients
Patrick Hwu, M.D., head of the Cancer Medicine division at MD Anderson, is inspired by Rezvani’s work, and he knows how Caroline, her patient from long ago, affected her.
“Katy not only adopted her patient’s cats,” Hwu says, “but she developed a highly effective immunotherapy in her patient’s honor. And she’s helping other patients to not perish from the devastating complications of transplantation. I think she’s the story of the year.”
During Hurricane Harvey, Hwu said Rezvani was one of the MD Anderson physicians who made her way to the hospital during the storm and stayed for days watching over her patients — until the danger passed.
“I’m hoping to start clinical trials with glioblastoma patients in about a year,” she says. “I’m optimistic.”
Cats provide lasting bond
When Rezvani is not working, she’s at home with Richard, and Bella and Roxy, who are now both 15.
“They love Texas,” she says. “They love the heat. And Bella is a little huntress. She’s like a kitten still.”
In 2013, Rezvani went back to London and brought photos to Caroline’s family.
“I wanted to show her little boy pictures of the cats,” she says.