Every so often the BBC produces something that is worth the year’s licence fee alone. War in the blood, first broadcast last Sunday, is one such programme. It’s a truly remarkable 100 minutes of television.
I’d originally decided not to watch it. Somehow, it all felt a bit too close to home. The CAR T-cell therapy covered by the programme shares some similarities with the stem cell transplant I went through last year. Blood cell harvesting, long hospital stays and (ouch) bone marrow biopsies. The emotions you go through as treatment is explained to you and your carer. The periods of relative wellness, followed by total reliance on medical staff. It’s all horribly familiar. But encouraged by friends on one of the MCL forums I belong to, I decided that I needed to see it for myself.
The personal stories of Graham Threader and Mahmoud Kayiizi are at the centre of the documentary. Both had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) which had stopped responding to conventional chemotherapy. The phase 1 CAR T-cell trials they signed up to were their best chance – their last chance – of a long lasting remission. Phase 1 trials are inevitably risky undertakings, as they’re the first time new treatments are tried in people. But as Graham observed, “someone has to go first”.
The science behind CAR T is explained in a straightforward manner using ping-pong balls by Dr Martin Pule. He’s in charge of programming the blood cells used so that they attack the cancer and kill it. His early passion for tinkering with electronics eventually led him into this career. There’s a point in the programme where he talks about the data from the trials being all important. In the midst of the patients’ personal stories this made me gasp, but of course, he’s right. You have to remain objective to make the right design decisions for the patients. You think with the head, not the heart.
Dr Claire Roddie leads the teams administering the trials. The documentary gives a fascinating insight into what motivated her to become a haematologist, and she shares in the patients’ joys and sadnesses. You see the wider NHS at its best as well.
War in the blood is available on the BBC iPlayer for another month. It’s compelling viewing, with a bittersweet conclusion. I’m glad that I watched it. The future of all blood cancer treatment may well be CAR T-cell shaped soon. I’m grateful to the pioneers – the patients and medical professionals – for their selfless commitment.