The first time Bill Cronin Googled his own cancer diagnosis in 2016, his heart sank. He had Sézary syndrome, a rare and aggressive form of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma — and staring back at him were countless articles predicting a negative prognosis.
However, after receiving a stem-cell transplant at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, Cronin is returning to the life he enjoyed before cancer.
“I’m at a place I never thought I’d get to,” Cronin says.
A sign of something wrong
In 2015, Cronin, then 60, started feeling incredibly itchy and developed an accompanying rash. He went to his dermatologist, who diagnosed him with eczema and told him to return in five months. The rash continued to grow, however, and at the five month mark, Cronin’s dermatologist encouraged him to undergo further testing at Dana-Farber.
A blood test revealed that Cronin’s T-cells — a type of white blood cells that make up part of the immune system — had become cancerous. In the case of Sézary syndrome, lymphoma cells will circulate through the blood stream and deposit in different areas of the skin. This will generally lead to a full-body rash and intense itchiness.
Cronin would need a stem cell transplant to combat the disease, but before he could receive one, his care team had to get him into remission. Patients who do not achieve remission prior to transplant have a high chance of relapsing.
“When they first told me everything, I was really scared,” says Cronin. “But I knew I was in one of the best places in the world to figure out and treat this rare disease.”
From immunotherapy to remission
Cronin’s pre-transplant care was spearheaded by oncologists David Fisher, MD, and Nicole LeBoeuf, MD, MPH, clinical director of Cutaneous Oncology at Dana-Farber, with his transplant conducted by Corey Cutler, MD, MPH, medical director of the Adult Stem Cell Transplantation Program at Dana-Farber. Initially, Cronin’s disease was incredibly resistant; for nearly three years, mainstay drugs — including steroids, monoclonal antibodies, and enzyme blockers — all failed to put his disease into remission.
Ultimately, it would take a new drug, mogamulizumab (a type of immunotherapy that directly kills T-cells involved with Sezary Syndrome) to get Cronin’s disease into remission.
In May 2019, Cronin was cleared to undergo an allogeneic transplant, a type of transplant that uses a donor’s stem cells, in this case, Cronin’s brother. Since his transplant Cronin has remained in remission.
“We had to use all of our ‘big guns’ to get him to transplant, but I’m pleased with where we are now,” says Cutler.
“I know the situation can always change, but it was great to be able to share some good news with my family and friends,” adds Cronin.
An impressive milestone
Patients like Cronin serve as a reminder of how stem cell transplants have improved and continue to impact patient outcomes, Dana-Farber experts note. Initially offered to only an incredibly small patient population when first performed at Dana-Farber in the 1970s, research advancements have, and continue to, broaden who is eligible for a transplant. In 2019, Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC) surpassed 10,000 total adult transplants.
“This milestone indicates our success as a program and our volume has allowed us to do the research to help move the field forward rather impressively,” says Joseph Antin, MD, chief emeritus of Adult Stem Cell Transplantation at DF/BWCC.
In 1996, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital merged their then separate transplant centers. By pooling together physical and intellectual resources, the new combined program was able to more than double the number of transplants each hospital could perform individually.
“We always felt collaboration was better than competition,” explains Robert Soiffer, MD, vice chair of Medical Oncology for Hematological Malignancies and chief of the Division of Hematologic Malignancies, who oversaw the merger with Antin. “Each side could learn from the other, and that helped to catapult us into the leadership position we have today.”
The Stem Cell Transplantation Program is also bolstered by the Connell and O’Reilly Families Cell Manipulation Core Facility (CMCF), which was established in 1996. The state-of-the-art center, led by Jerome Ritz, MD, not only processes the stem cells for transplant; it also assists researchers in developing new cell-based therapies for patients.
Another key component to the program’s success has been the creation of the Ted and Eileen Pasquarello Tissue Bank. The Pasquarello Tissue Bank receives, processes, banks, and distributes research samples of blood, bone marrow, and other tissues. Through a database overseen by Vincent Ho, MD, the Institute is able to log, assess, and later review every patient’s disease, including all complications and mutations. This technology allows researchers to explore the genetic makeup of past donors and better understand why a transplant was or was not successful.
“We’re still learning from biological specimens we collected 20 years ago, and it will continue to impact care 20 years from now,” Soiffer says.
Today, there is a continuous push to develop new and more precise therapies to complement and improve stem cell transplants. The hope is to bring new treatment options to patients like Cronin who are facing rare and difficult diseases.
Love for his partner
Before his diagnosis, Bill, and Barbara Finney, his partner of nearly 30 years, were avid English Country dancers. English Country dancing evolved from the court dances of Europe in the early 17th century, and Cronin and Barbara have friends from all over the country who share their passion for it.
While Cronin isn’t dancing just yet, as he’s still recovering from his transplant, he says he couldn’t have gotten through this without his partner — on the dance floor and in life.
“Barbara has been amazing and has helped take care of everything I couldn’t do,” he adds. “I’ve been fortunate and privileged to not only have her, but to have been able to come to Dana-Farber.”