Woman beats cancer for second time with lab-modified cells in revolutionary treatment



A courageous young woman has just beaten leukaemia for the second time thanks to a revolutionary new treatment.

Kirsty Harrower, 20, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia, a type of blood cancer, a week after her 15th birthday in August 2016.

After being given the all clear, she suffered a devastating relapse in 2020 and started chemotherapy again, Yorkshire live reports.

Ms Harrower also has Down’s Syndrome which puts children at a 33 times greater risk for developing the cancer type, according to the charity Leukaemia Care.

Parents Neil Harrower, 51, and Janet Chelliah, 53, were praying for a positive outcome after their daughter suffered a devastating relapse and battled the disease for a second time.

Kirsty spent December 2020 in hospital receiving a revolutionary new immunotherapy treatment
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Kirsty, pictured here with her sister Melissa, has finished her treatment and tests have shown her reprogrammed cells are still going strong
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Neil said: “Her treatment was a rollercoaster, but her main consultant just kept telling us it would be okay.”

While Cancer Research UK say ALL is the most common cancer found in children, it has a 90 per cent five-year survival rate in under 14s – a figure which drops to 70 per cent in those, like Kirsty, who are aged from 15 to 24 when they are first diagnosed.

Neil, who works at Sheffield Children’s Hospital as a paediatrician , says children who have Down’s syndrome are also more prone to developing leukaemia, and are at a 33 times greater risk of developing ALL.

Neil suspected something was wrong when the keen dancer was wiped out by a performance that would normally have left her feeling energised, and just beforehand had fainted during a family holiday in Scotland.

Now Kirsty and her family can’t wait to celebrate this Christmas
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He took Kirsty to A&E at Sheffield Children’s Hospital, where the family were given the devastating news.

He said: “I had a suspicion because I knew that, due to the Down’s syndrome, Kirsty had an increased risk of developing leukaemia.”

He added: “The whole thing was very difficult, because I was now the parent and not the doctor.

“I knew all the staff at the hospital and it was a junior doctor who called me after they had taken blood to say, ‘It looks like leukaemia.’”

The family reunited just in time for Christmas in December 2020 after Kirsty spent five weeks in hospita
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Doctors are not permitted to treat family members and being the parent of a patient was a difficult role reversal for the devoted dad.

Janet, too, found being a doctor added another layer of stress, because they knew more than most parents would about the condition.

Admitted immediately to start chemotherapy, Kirsty spent almost three months in hospital having treatment, with one or the other of her parents at her bedside 24 hours a day.

“We wanted everything to be done that could be done, but we didn’t know just how hard it would be,” said Janet.

She added: “Kirsty knew from the start something was wrong and I remember her comforting me and saying, ‘It will be all right Mummy’.

The family together on Christmas 2017
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“What we learned is that what you read in the textbooks isn’t necessarily what happens during treatment.

“We just didn’t realise all the side effects, which included hair loss, abdominal swelling and jaundice.”

Kirsty’s diagnosis also impacted Melissa who, although she was told it was cancer, had no idea how bad things would be for her big sister.

But in January 2019, Kirsty’s treatment finished and she was finally given the all clear, allowing family life to return to normal.

However, for Kirsty and her family, the relief was short-lived and in the summer of 2020 Kirsty, who had been one of the first NHS patients to have to shield due to Covid, relapsed and started chemotherapy again.

The family together in Christmas 2018
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Janet says this was harder to deal with than the original diagnosis, because this time they all knew what lay ahead.

“We’d had a really good family lockdown together,” she said.

“Kirsty was well and had no symptoms. So we enjoyed lots of family activities, like lots of singing.”

She added: “Then a routine blood test came back and showed there were abnormalities again.”

A bone marrow test confirmed that the cancer was back, sending Kirsty into hospital again for more chemotherapy.

She was allowed out for her birthday in August, but was very distressed, telling her parents she did not want to die.

“That was a very sad day,” said Janet.

Kirsty is a keen dancer, and her dad realised something was wrong when a routine left her exhausted
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“All of us stayed by her bedside and I will never forget when she said, ‘Don’t forget me.’”

Hospitalised again for five weeks, this time Covid restrictions were thrown in the mix and Janet says it was very hard to stay positive.

Kirsty was confined to a 6ft square cubicle and experienced an array of unpleasant side-effects which, at one point, included temporarily losing the power of speech and movement.

“Kirsty loves singing and I remember her turning to me and whispering ‘I can’t sing’” recalled Janet.

After coming home for a few weeks in September 2020, Kirsty was then admitted to University College Hospital, London (UCL) for a revolutionary new immunotherapy treatment, designed for patients who had suffered from leukaemia and relapsed.

Kirsty and Melissa both love dancing
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The treatment known as CAR-T Therapy involves taking some of the patient’s own immune system cells and ‘reprogramming’ or ‘training’ them in the laboratory, so they can then go back into the body and be used to target and destroy the cancer cells.

According to NHS England, this is a highly complex and potentially risky new treatment.

But, it has been shown in trials to cure some patients – even those with advanced cancers – where other treatments have failed.

At the moment, it is only approved in the UK for ALL patients up to the age of 25 who, like Kirsty, have relapsed.

Kirsty has faced a tough few years, but is looking forward to a new lease of life after finishing treatment
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During more than a month in hospital, it meant the family were split up, although the charity Young Lives vs Cancer (formerly known as CLIC Sargent) helped them to cope by providing accommodation for Janet in London.

“It was really hard being away from home, but Kirsty loves the festive season, so I made a countdown to Christmas calendar and used that to keep us both motivated and looking forward to going home,” she said.

On December 21, 2020, just as the country went into a draconian Christmas lockdown, Neil and Melissa raced to London to bring Janet and Kirsty home in time for Christmas.

Her treatment had ended, the reprogrammed cells were back in her body and the family was told if she could get to six months without any further abnormal blood tests, the future looked bright.

Kirsty, pictured here on her 18th birthday, was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) in August 2016
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“It felt like a real life rescue mission bringing them back home and we played Christmas music all the way home to Sheffield in the car,” said Neil.

A year on from that dash to London, tests show that the CAR-T therapy cells are still going strong in Kirsty’s body, giving the family a fantastic reason to celebrate Christmas 2021.

Kirsty, whose favourite festive song is Last Christmas by George Michael, will be starting as she means to go on, by joining her sister for three performances of Beauty And The Beast on December 20, 21 and 22 at The Montgomery Theatre in Sheffield.

And, as a Sheffield United fan, she is most looking forward to receiving the team calendar she has asked for on December 25.

Kirsty said: “I’m most looking forward to Christmas dinner, playing games with the family and having a Sheffield United calendar.”

The whole family cannot wait to settle down to Christmas lunch and to pull some crackers.

And they all share Melissa’s sentiments.

She said: “I have my sister back!”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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