Blood cancer trial gives former nurse new hope

Press release posted 14 August 2023

A former NHS nurse, who was diagnosed with cancer 3 years ago is now in complete remission, with no evidence of the disease, thanks to a ground-breaking new blood cancer drug she is receiving for myeloma as part of a clinical trial at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester.

Jan Ross, 57, from South Liverpool, was working at Alder Hey children’s hospital in December 2019, when she started to feel ill. She had picked up an infection which developed into pneumonia. Jan recovered, but the pneumonia came back and she became so poorly she ended up in hospital for 3 weeks. Doctors did further investigations and in February 2020 a bone biopsy confirmed she had multiple myeloma. 

Due to the diagnosis, Jan was forced to make the difficult decision to retire from her job as a children’s nurse after a 20-year career in paediatrics.

Myeloma is a type of blood cancer that develops from the cells in the bone marrow. It isn’t curable but can be managed with treatment. It affects white blood cells called plasma cells. Normally, plasma cells make antibodies that help fight off infections. In myeloma, the plasma cells start to make antibodies which don’t work properly. These abnormal cells also grow more quickly than they should.

Jan started on chemotherapy which made her so fatigued she could only crawl up her stairs at home. She then underwent a stem cell transplant in August 2021 which is a gruelling procedure which resulted in a month-long hospital stay and losing 4 stone in weight. However, it worked and kept her cancer at bay for 9 and a half months, during which time she managed without any treatment.

In March 2022 tests showed the cancer was growing again. Jan also started to suffer from shoulder pain and doctors discovered an abscess in the epidural space in her spine which was due to her immune system not working well because of the myeloma.  She underwent surgery to remove the abscess and had to learn to walk again, spending a further 6 weeks in hospital. 

While still using a wheelchair to get about, Jan became a patient at Clatterbridge Hospital in Liverpool where her consultant referred her to The Christie so she could be considered for an early phase commercial clinical trial. In November 2022 Jan agreed to participate in research at the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Manchester Clinical Research Facility (CRF) at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust (The Christie) in Manchester.

After Jan was recruited onto the study she spent 2 and half weeks as an inpatient at The Christie while her body became accustomed to a new antibody immunotherapy drug. This drug, which is being trialled for patients with myeloma who have previously had at least two types of treatment, works by harnessing the power of the immune system to attack the cancer. The antibodies in the drug brings the body’s immune cells and cancer cells together and stops them hiding so they can be destroyed.

Jan is now in complete remission and the cancer can’t be detected. While myeloma isn’t curable, her cancer is now very well controlled. She now visits The Christie every 2 weeks for blood tests, monitoring and ongoing treatment.

Talking about her experience of being on the trial, Jan Ross said: “Since my diagnosis I have had lots of different medications, each with side effects that have been really challenging and affected my quality of life.  The myeloma could only be controlled for short periods of time for the first 2 and a half years. Thanks to this amazing new trial drug, after just 7 months the cancer can’t be detected and I only experience relatively minor side-effects like brittle nails and some loss of taste.
"I would encourage anyone who fits the criteria for a trial drug to embrace it with confidence or at least explore your options. You too could be receiving the positive news I have just been given.”

Dr Emma Searle, a consultant haematologist who leads the trial, and is in charge of Jan’s care, said: “We are very pleased with Jan’s response to this treatment. She has tolerated the drug well with minimal side effects, feels well and can enjoy life. Early results for this sort of immunotherapy treatment are exciting with an impressive with at least 2 thirds of patients responding well, showing it has the potential to offer patients with multiple relapsed or refractory myeloma another effective option when conventional treatment has stopped working.
“For years our haematology research team here at The Christie has been working to improve life expectancy for patients with myeloma. This trial marks a major step forward in the fight against myeloma. We are one of only two sites in the UK, and the only one outside London running this trial. This is ground-breaking research and we hope this new drug will be licensed soon and available more widely.” 

According to Cancer Research UK data, there are around 3,100 myeloma deaths in the UK every year, that’s more than 8 every day (2017 to 2019) making it the 17th most common cause of cancer death in the UK accounting for 2% of all cancer deaths.

Dr Emma Searle is funded by The Christie Charity to run blood cancer trials.

Any patients interested in taking part in clinical trials should discuss this option with their consultant or GP. Not all patients will fit the criteria for a specific trial. While clinical trials can be successful for some patients, outcomes can vary from case to case. You can read more about taking part in clinical trials.

Last updated: August 2023