TOLEDO, Ohio (13abc Action News) - The news was not good for Mary Beth Zolik-Smith one year ago.
"I had no options! I went to my local oncologist and he said we looked at the PET scan and your non-hodgkins lymphoma large B cell aggressive is back after 3 years and we don't have a lot of options," says Zolik-Smith.
But that didn't stop Zolik-Smith, she decided to investigate clinical trials that may help. She came across one called CAR-T. It's the first that's FDA approved to treat a rare form of leukemia in children, and it is in intensive clinical trials around the country to treat non-hodgkins lymphoma large B cell.
Within days of looking into the trial, Mary Beth was headed to Cleveland to apply for the trial.
"Can I just say I think it would be easier to get into Harvard than it is sometimes to get into a clinical trial because you have to be kind of sick but you have to be a little bit healthy too to withstand all that a clinical trial can bring with it, which can be quite devastating to learn about."
Zolik-Smith got in and things started moving fast. The treatment uses a patients own white blood cells or t-cells that are retrained in a laboratory to recognize markers on the surface of cancer cells then attacks and kills only those cells.
"The best way to describe it is it's like a pack-man. You have cancer and you have a t-cell and it comes and boom, latches on that cancer and destroys it." says Zolik-Smith.
The t-cells were extracted from Zolik at the Cleveland Clinic, then flown to Seattle where researchers re-engineered them to attack the cancer. The cells were infused back into Zolik-Smith the day after last Christmas.
At first there was no reaction, but on New Years Eve as the new cells were attacking the cancer, she experienced the most serious life-threatening reaction you can with this treatment called a "Cytokine Storm". This is where the immune system goes haywire. Patients can die during this phase. Mary Beth slipped into a coma for 36 hours. She doesn't remember anything about that time, but gradually came out of it and regained her strength back.
Zolik-Smith has had several PET scans since her treatment and is so far cancer free.
When asked how she found the courage to take part in the clinical trial, "My family, my husband we're going to be celebrating our 29th anniversary this year. We have 3 beautiful wonderful children who I like them as people. If they weren't my kids I'd like them anyway. I'm lucky enough that they are my kids. I like them and love them and I still want to be part of what's going on in their lives."