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New Gene Therapy Treatment To Fight Bladder Cancer at Houston VA

Army Veteran Sammie Robertson (left) and Dr. Jennifer Taylor, Urologic Oncologist at the Houston VA.
Army Veteran Sammie Robertson (left) and Dr. Jennifer Taylor, Urologic Oncologist at the Houston VA.

An Army Veteran from Houston received a dose of optimism this week when he came in for a groundbreaking new gene therapy treatment at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center

Sammie Robertson is the first VA patient in the country to receive a dose of Adstiladrin, the first and only FDA-approved gene therapy to help fight non-muscle-invasive bladder cancer (NMIBC).   

“This new treatment is giving me a chance to get rid of this cancer once and for all,” said Robertson, who served two tours of duty in Korea during his ten years of Army service.   “I have faith in the doctors here at the Houston VA and when they told me I might be a candidate to get this medicine, I said 'let’s go for it!'”

According to Dr. Jennifer Taylor, Urologic Oncologist at the Houston VA and an Associate Professor of Urology at Baylor College of Medicine, Adstiladrin is a targeted treatment that works with the body’s immune cells and delivers a gene that encodes an interferon protein to a patient’s bladder so it can fight cancer.  The therapy is delivered directly to the bladder via a catheter and a patient will receive one treatment every three months, if monitoring shows it is working.   Side effects of the new treatment are generally minimal, she added.

It was originally developed over many years by scientists and urologic specialists treating bladder cancer, and upon FDA approval in late 2022, the VHA National Oncology Program worked with the manufacturer and the VHA National Pharmacy system to ensure early access to Veterans nationwide.  The Houston VA is proud to treat the first Veteran with this medication.

“We are thrilled to offer Veterans this new treatment as an alternative to having their bladder removed,” Taylor said. “Veterans who are candidates for this gene therapy have recurrent non-invasive bladder cancer which is resistant to first line standard treatment, called BCG.  This new treatment gives them a way to continue to fight bladder cancer without having a major life-changing surgery.”

According to the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, bladder cancer is four times more common among males than females and is the sixth most common cancer in the U.S.   Likely due to a high prevalence of smoking as well as potentially being exposed to a variety of environmental factors while in the military, bladder cancer rates among Veterans may be higher than non-Veterans, Taylor said.  She cites clinical research and a commitment to equipping Veterans with the latest and greatest treatments as keys to success in fighting bladder cancer.  

“Houston VA is committed to clinical research into bladder cancer and we were eager to bring this new treatment to our Veterans as soon as possible,” said Dr. Mark Kobelja, Chief of Staff at the Houston VA.  “Our Veteran patients show incredible determination and heart when battling this disease and we are proud to equip them with this new tool to help.”   

As an avid reader of religious books, Robertson said he relies on his faith and his “attitude of gratitude” as critical parts of his healing journey.   “I take care of my mother and I want to continue to be there for her,” he said.   “I am so grateful to these doctors here at the VA. ..I know they want the best for me.  My goal is to be me and cancer-free.”