PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – A new Providence documentary, “Within Reach,” follows a “first-in-the-world” clinical trial for cancer patients at the Providence Cancer Institute of Oregon — sharing the story of patients who have exhausted treatment options and the researchers looking for a cure.
“Within Reach” was filmed over the last year — following three trial patients, two from the Portland metro area, and one who traveled from Florida for treatment.
Co-director Joe Kuffner, of Providence Foundations of Oregon, told KOIN 6 News, “we just felt like it was the right time to follow some of the patients that were going through it, who were so generous and courageous to allow us to film them while they’re going through this treatment at one of the hardest times of their life.”
In the trial, Dr. Eric Tran and Dr. Rom Leidner’s team used an adoptive cell therapy in which they genetically engineered patient’s T cells to attack cancer cells. The patient’s T cells are multiplied and then infused back into the patient.
According to Providence, T-cell transfer therapy has been a successful treatment for some blood cancers. Now, the team is researching how the therapy can impact solid cancers that have been resistant to other treatments.
Before starting the trial, Providence’s research on the novel immunotherapy was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“[The patients] exhausted all other forms of treatment, and this is kind of a last hope for them. And it’s just really incredible, the work that’s being done there. And we just felt like it was a story that needed to be told,” Kuffner said. “They’ve tried surgeries, they’ve tried radiation, they’ve tried chemotherapy, they tried all the other types of treatment. And, they kind of didn’t have any options left, and just their generosity with their story. They’re being so open about their humor, their humanity, their hopes, and dreams, and sharing all of that. And at such a vulnerable point in their lives was just really amazing.”
He furthered “it’s a story about Providence Cancer Institute, but honestly, it’s a story about the Portland community coming together to do good and try to finish cancer.”
The documentary includes trial patient, Tom Burckhardt, who was the first person in the world to receive this immunotherapy, Kuffner said. Tom and his wife Misty lived in Vancouver, and both worked as nurses. They also have a blended family with five kids, who at the time of the trial, ranged from 19- to 27 years old.
“He was so funny. He had such a good spirit, such positivity, such a sense of humor. And I think he really felt deeply the desire to help people in the future,” Kuffner said of Tom, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2022 at age 48. His stage four cancer metastasized to his liver.
After the first rounds of cancer treatment at Oregon Health & Science University weren’t working, Tom and Misty began looking at their options.
Misty’s coworker shared an article with her about the Portland trial, then 24 hours after emailing Dr. Tran, Tom was tested in the lab to see if he qualified, before joining the trial around June.
“Our options were very limited after that first option of treatment was no longer working. He had had a CT done, and it had shown that the tumors had grown and that there were more tumors developing in his liver. So, there was another chemotherapy agent, a combination agent that we could do. But with pancreatic cancer, it’s very aggressive. From the time they found his cancer. It had spread to his liver within three weeks. So, you know, pancreatic cancer, you don’t have much time, there’s really no time to waste,” Misty explained.
“He’s like, ‘We’re medical professionals, we both know what the odds are, we know what we’re up against.’ He said, ‘Even if this doesn’t cure me or allow me years with my family, I want to be able to contribute, so that hopefully down the road, it can lead to a cure. I want to at least be a part of it to where maybe I’m the jumping-off point. Maybe they get enough information from me and enough samples from me and can learn enough for me that has them down the right road to eventually finding a cure for this,’” Misty said.
Through human leukocyte antigen testing, doctors found that Tom had an “extremely rare” match to two different T cell receptors. This allowed doctors to genetically engineer two different avenues to treat his cancer, Misty added.
She explained, “they took biopsies from his tumors in the liver before he had any cells. So, they were able to gather pre-information from his tumors and his cancer. And then they were also able to engineer his cells, give them back to him, and then gather information afterward. So, they were able to follow where we were beforehand, after the treatment, and what kind of damage is being done with these cells, which they have not been able to do before.”
Over the course of the trial, Tom took medication to drive the cells into his tissues and had several biopsies and CT scans. After getting the first cell infusion, Tom was not hospitalized but would go to the hospital for daily lab work for two weeks, then would get a week off from the trial medication and did this cycle for a few months as doctors worked on a second batch of cells.
During the trial, Tom had mixed results, as some tumors stopped growing, some shrunk, and a couple grew. The next cell infusion required him to be hospitalized for three weeks.
Isolated hospital stays and medication side effects were challenging, Misty said. However, Tom’s quality of life improved and the two took five trips over the last 10 months with the disease.
“We went to England and Ireland, you know, he was able to do the last-minute things that he wanted to do. And I got one more Christmas, I got one more Thanksgiving. I got one more birthday with him that I feel — I don’t have any evidence to back it up — but I feel it’s because of the trial that I got all that extra time with him,” Misty said.
“I feel it was a success because I got 13 months with him — 13 months from when he was diagnosed, which is unheard of with pancreatic cancer,” Misty said. “Even though yes, I lost my husband and oh Lord, do I miss him dearly, but it’s really important to keep this trial going because I really feel they’re onto something and they’re right here, you know making huge strides in this area. It’s phenomenal.”
When they were approached about joining the documentary, Misty says they agreed because they wanted to share their story to help others.
“As a medical professional, it blows my mind that we have come this far. He and I both agreed that we would not be where we are today without research. We would not be where we are without people willing to be those guinea pigs and say, ‘Yes, I know that all of this is experimental, I know that you guys have no idea what this medication is going to do to me. And you don’t know if these cells are going to work.’ But because of people being willing to put themselves out there and to put themselves in that position to do that, that is how we are able to make these amazing strides in medicine,” Misty said.
“My husband passed away, but I, still as the grieving wife, 100% support this trial, and the people that are doing it. And if I can do that, I’m hoping that other people will see this documentary and see the story and think there’s hope,” Misty said. “When you live in the cancer world, there’s very little hope. The positives start to get less and less, it’s really easy to get down on yourself and down on the situation. And I’m hoping that this documentary reaches people, whether they have somebody who has cancer or have had somebody in the past with cancer, that they see this and just have a little bit of hope that things are being done. People are working as hard as they can to come up with a cure and help save people. And that it’s not all for nothing.”
“Within Reach” premiers at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Mission Theater. Providence is offering free tickets to the screening, which will be followed by a panel discussion with researchers. Providence says the documentary will likely be available online after the premiere and may enter the film festival circuit.