First patient to receive commercial cancer drug at Nebraska Medicine

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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -- Distance wasn’t going to keep Donna Jones from this Omaha hospital bed. The Sundance, Wyoming, woman traveled 11-hours to be first in line to see the doctors.

“I could see the lymph nodes growing,” Donna told 6 News. “This is the last option.”

In a year, the Jones family ranch turns 101. Donna doesn’t turn 60 until June. So why have nurses wished her a happy birthday? Simply put, she’s a milestone.

Three weeks ago the medical team at Nebraska Medicine extracted her T-cells from her blood. The cells are re-engineered to identify the cancer cells and kill them. The process is called CAR T-Cell Therapy.

Every standard treatment Donna Jones tried up to this point seemed to make the cancer stronger.

“It came back and came back fast,” she explained. That’s why this day was such a big day.

Donna Jones’ new T-Cells are in the dry ice – waiting to be thawed.

“Shaken not stirred,” Donna laughs.

The Buffett Cancer Center is one of a handful in the country to go from clinical trial to commercial use of the drug – and Donna Jones is first up.

“This is the day we were hoping for,” said Dr. Matt Lunning.

Drop by drop – it takes 30-minutes for the gene therapy to be infused. On this medical birthday, she’s already received a gift: a Hot Wheels car.

“The car – they gave that to me. There’s a T on top,” Donna said. It’s for the “CAR T” therapy. The toy also represents the hope of adding years to her life.

“It means that maybe I can see my grandson graduate and walk down the aisle – and my granddaughter. It means life,” Donna said.

Nebraska Medicine expects to treat 5-10 patients in the next three months with the new commercial drug. In some people, the gene therapy has reduced deadly tumors to next to nothing.