John Hornsby Sr. never thought his cancer would go away. The Kentucky native was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma over a decade ago. He thought he had run out of options until he met Dr. Jim Essell, who suggested he sign up for a clinical trial. The therapy provided a more targeted approach to Hornsby’s cancer and now ten years later after his first diagnosis, he is cancer free.
Hornsby lived in horrible pain for months because of his condition.
“I was either in the bathroom sick or in my bed sick and I stayed like that for almost six months,” he said.
He originally thought his stomach pain was being caused by a hernia, but his wife, Tamison, eventually convinced him to go to the doctor. “It wasn’t protruding, it was just glowing red,” she said. “And I said, ‘John, that’s not right.'”
He took her advice and went to the doctor, but it was only bad news.
“They told us it was Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that surgery wasn’t an option,” Tamison said.
“We cried for three days when I found out I had cancer and I told her, I said, ‘That’s enough. I can’t take this crying. I can’t do it no more,'” Hornsby said.
He started chemotherapy and eventually went into remission.
“By the 12th month, it was back with a vengeance — even in more spots than it originally had been,” Tamison said.
They were starting to lose hope until Essell showed them a better way.
“What we’re doing now with John is a quantum leap forward,” Essell said. “He had eight different treatment courses over nine years. So, the T-cells are exhausted. They don’t fight cancer as well, which is why we thought he would be a perfect candidate for this clinical trial.”
Dr. Essell and his team at Oncology Hematology Care (OHC) were approached by Caribou Biosciences to conduct a phase 1 clinical trial. Unlike radiation, which damages the rest of the body, the therapy takes a more tailored approach to target the disease.
“It can specifically insert an antibody directed against cancer into these T-cells,” Essell said. “Then the T-cells hone in on cancer cells. They release chemicals that cause the cells to divide, bring more T-cells in, ultimately kill the cancer and spare the rest of the body.”
In June 2021, Hornsby became the first person in the world to take part in the new treatment. He received new T-cells through an IV.
“It didn’t hit me at all until I had my test and he’d come back … my cancer’s shrinking and shrinking and shrinking,” Hornsby said.
Just 28 days later, his cancer was undetectable, and he has been in remission ever since.
Essell said this treatment has a long way to go before it becomes the new standard for cancer centers around the world, but this is a big step forward.
“The only way we make this groundbreaking improvement is [with] bold, courageous people like John that are willing to take the risk and being the first one ever to get this treatment.,” Essell said.
Hornsby said OHC started to feel like home while he was being treated. The staff went out of their way to make him feel special.
“All my doctors, nurses, they took care of me like a newborn baby,” he said. “It’s like a big family here.”
The clinical trial is now enrolling patients at OHC and other medical centers throughout the United States. This will give providers more information about whether the therapy has different effects on different people.