Rich’s Story: 'For Me, CAR T-Cell Therapy Worked a Miracle'

Rich Gingerelli was a newly retired firefighter when he received his first cancer diagnosis at the age of 50. Nearly 17 years later, he started battling a second cancer with the help of a new weapon—his own T-cells.

Large group of doctors, nurses, and patients stand next to a cake

With the NYP/Columbia care team on the day of Rich's CAR T-cell procedure. Dr. Ran Reshef, pictured in the center, between patient, Rich, and his wife, Maryann. (Courtesy of the Gingerellis)

Rich was diagnosed in 1998 with Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia (WM), a rare type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and was seen by Dr. Joseph Jurcic, a member of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center (HICCC) and director of the Hematologic Malignancies Section at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. Fortunately, the WM remained slow-growing and uneventful for years. But in 2015, Rich learned that while overcoming WM, he had now developed diffuse large B-cell lymphoma.

“I was devastated,” says Rich, 72. “Soon after the diagnosis, I started chemotherapy and the lymphoma went away. But three years later, my cancer returned. We thought it was WM, but it was actually the lymphoma that came back.”

Rich then underwent a stem cell transplant for the lymphoma but suffered another setback when the treatment failed to curtail the cancer. In the summer of 2018, Rich’s doctors in the lymphoma group and blood and marrow transplantation, Drs. Ahmed Sawas and Markus Mapara, introduced the Gingerellis to Dr. Ran Reshef, a member of the HICCC and a pioneer in CAR T-cell therapy. CAR T-cell therapy is a very new, cutting-edge treatment that has shown success in recent years in treating some cancers, including lymphoma. When a patient is treated with CAR T-cell therapy, they receive an infusion of their own T-cells that are specifically engineered to recognize and attack cancer cells.

“With a single treatment, these engineered T-cells are able to search and destroy every last cancer cell,” says Dr. Reshef, director of translational research and blood and marrow transplantation at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. “We’re seeing patients, who were once incurable, live for many years after a CAR T infusion. It’s unprecedented.”

Once on the brink of losing hope, the Gingerelli family now have cause to celebrate.

This summer will mark Rich’s second straight year cancer-free following his CAR T-cell infusion. Two years ago, CAR T-cell therapy had never been given to a lymphoma patient; Rich was scheduled to be the first CAR T patient at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, but fell ill the week of his procedure. Though Rich didn’t get to claim to be “the first”, he says, “This is the best thing that could ever have happened. For me, it worked a miracle.”

“He is in remission, and that’s what counts,” says wife, Maryann. “I still get chills just talking about it.”

While considering CAR T-cell therapy, both Rich and Maryann were hesitant at first because the treatment was so new and they were uncertain of the outcome. But they felt immediately at ease with Dr. Reshef and soon agreed that going forward with CAR T was a “no-brainer”. Says Maryann, “Rich had been through a lot, but I told him, we have to take the chance.”

Maryann Gingerelli (left) with husband, Rich, standing in front of a cake shaped like Pac-Man

Maryann Gingerelli (left) with husband, Rich, had a cake made shaped like Pac-Man, "eating" cancer cells in its path.

The Gingerellis credit their care team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia for always making them feel like a priority.

“I was in that hospital in 2018 more times than I was out of it. They took great care of me,” says Rich. “They all have such a tough job – the doctors, nurses, the physicians assistants –and they never complain. They’ve been so terrific.”

The Gingerellis, who recently celebrated their 16-year anniversary, were able to take a vacation to Italy in September—the first trip since Rich’s lymphoma diagnosis—and  continue to make travel plans for when the global pandemic is over.

Thinking back to the day of Rich’s CAR T infusion, Maryann describes it as more of a celebration than a cancer treatment. There were photos taken of smiling faces, and she had a cake made to mark the occasion.

“Before the CAR T treatment, we were making plans for Rich to pass,” says Maryann. “I think of all the people we’ve met along the journey—other caregivers and Rich’s team of nurses and doctors. I can’t say enough about them. This isn’t just a job for them; to do this type of work, you have to have real compassion and such big hearts.”