Blood Cancer Patient Receives First Treatment of Its Kind

Dr. Varela and his team.
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This spring, AdventHealth’s own Juan Varela, MD, and a team of blood and marrow transplant (BMT) specialists successfully completed a first-of-its-kind immunotherapy treatment for a blood cancer patient in Orlando.

This treatment, targeting certain blood cancers, has been in the works by Dr. Varela since 2013 at Johns Hopkins University. Since that time, Dr. Varela and his team have gathered the generous support of NexImmune, a biotech company. “It’s been a long journey, but it’s been fun,” said Dr. Varela.

Pioneering Treatment for Patients

Antigen-Specific T-Cell therapy uses immune cells to target cancer cells, providing a potentially lifesaving result to acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) patients whose cancer relapsed after an allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT).

Antigen-Specific T-Cells are made by removing white blood cells from a donor (who had previously donated stem cells to the patient), generating immune cells that are tumor-specific, and then infusing the generated cells back into the patient’s bloodstream. Antigen-Specific T-Cells are able to attack specific cancer cells.

Treatment Candidates

While April marked the first successful in-human transfusion using donor HLA, in the future, the goal is to make this therapy available to other patients with AML and MDS who have had relapsed disease after an HSCT.

“If we’re able to use somebody else’s cells, from a donor whose cells have not been weakened by treatments such as chemotherapy, we feel we’ll have successful outcomes,” Dr. Varela said.

The first ever patient was recently treated at AdventHealth Orlando. The patient is in his 60s and had tried many other treatment options previously, including chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant — which was unfortunately followed by a relapse. Right now, Dr. Varela shared, this patient is doing great with no side effects, but he’ll continue to be monitored at home, which may last for a few months. “It’s going to take some time to know for sure that this has worked. We’ll do some tests in a month to see what his bone marrow looks like. But we’re happy to be able to give him another chance,” he said.

“When there is a leukemia relapse after a transplant, there’s no clear standard of care. These types of patients don’t have a lot of great opportunities after that. So, part of the reason we developed this therapy is to help these patients who otherwise may not have another option,” Dr. Valera explained.

The trial is being offered for six additional patients over the next six months at other cancer treatment facilities across the country. Once those first six patients are treated, enrollment will continue for more patients who are eligible for the trial. To learn more about clinical trials at AdventHealth, visit

More Information

If you’re interested in becoming a donor, please visit to begin the process of joining the donor registry. To learn more about our Blood and Marrow Transplant Program and other services available, visit

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