Before She Was a Candidate, Gene Therapy Was on Her Radar

Lori Ann Haalck was no stranger to a groundbreaking cancer treatment offered at IU Health Simon Cancer Center. She’s now among the first adult patients to receive gene therapy known as CAR-T cell.

Cancer is no stranger to Lori Haalck’s family. She comes from a blended family of six and has lost three siblings to cancer. Her father also lost his battle and her husband of 28 years, Heath Haalck, just completed treatments for prostate cancer.

“We’ve had a crazy couple of years. God just keeps us going,” said Haalck, 48.  She and her husband are the parents of two daughters – Alyssa, 22 and Brooke, 19. Both are students at IU Kokomo. Her mom Trisha Van Kamp has also been by her side.

“Our community has been very supportive,” said Haalck, who works as a stylist at La Revive Salon and Day Spa. The salon helped out by offering discounted products to customers. Heath Haalck is a captain with the Kokomo Police Department and head of the motorcycle unit. Friends and family members came together for a motorcycle rally and also a red carpet gala.

Haalck’s journey started in March of 2017. She was having back pain that was like nothing she’s every experienced. She first went to her family practitioner near her Howard County home. She ended up in ER and tests confirmed she has Diffuse large B-Cell lymphoma (DLBCL or DLBL), a cancer of B cells – the white blood cells responsible for producing antibodies. According to the National Cancer Institute, it is the most common type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma among adults and accounts for about 4.3 percent of all new cancer cases.

“I don’t know what are typical symptoms because mine started in the bone. I felt the pain on my left side,” said Haalck. She first completed six weeks of R-Chop chemotherapy – a monoclonal antibody drug, a group of targeted therapies.  Within a month, she relapsed and the cancer was in her right femur. Last December she had a stem cell transplant and was clear for nine months. Then the cancer returned.

“It’s kind of crazy because when I was first diagnosed my daughter came to me and said ‘mom, you need to read this article on CART-T cell. This is what you need to have done,’” said Haalck. It wasn’t a feasible treatment then, but her daughters continued to research the treatment – one is a premed major and one is a biology/physiological science major.

“They both wrote papers on CART-T cell so by the time it became an option, it was already on our radar,” said Haalck. When she again relapsed, she started treatments under the care of IU Health hematologist/oncologist Dr. Michael Robertson.

CAR-T cell is the gene therapy that uses custom-made cells to attack a patient’s own specific cancer. CAR-T cell therapy allows doctors to isolate T-lymphocyte cells – the body’s cells that fight infections and are active in immune response. The T cells are then engineered to express a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that targets a protein on a patient’s cancer cells, attaches to them and eventually kills them. Indiana University Health is the only site in Indiana to administer the treatment.

“I feel good other than a nasty taste in my mouth that can only be described as tomato soup and garlic,” said Haalck, just a day after her treatment. “I’ve been thrilled with the nurses and doctors here – how attentive they’ve been.”

She’s hopeful for the future. “My Goddaughter told me that she doesn’t need to pray for me anymore because Jesus told her I’ve been healed. I hope that is true,” said Haalck. “ I want to see my daughters finish college and get married. I want to enjoy grandchildren and I want to travel.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
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