bill herington

Reaching a “Golden” Goal

Bill Herington entered a clinical trial three years ago for Bristol Myers Squibb’s investigational chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy, idecabtagene vicleucel (ide-cel), for treatment of his multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the bone marrow, with a specific goal in mind.

“I just wanted to make it to my 50th wedding anniversary,” said the active, 75-year-old veteran helicopter pilot.

Bill, of Memphis, Tennessee, was diagnosed eight years ago with smoldering myeloma, a precursor disease that quickly progressed to multiple myeloma. Despite five years of treatments that included a stem cell transplant and multiple rounds of chemotherapy, the disease burden in Bill’s bone marrow had reached 95 percent.

His sons, Brad and Jeff, a BMS district business manager, oncology, were concerned. Although Bill was mostly asymptomatic and attempted to do most of his usual activities – working out, playing golf and maintaining his yard and home – Jeff said, “It was just a matter of time before his health was really going to decline.”

Bill was accepted into the clinical trial for ide-cel at a CAR T treatment center in Nashville, Tennessee. His T cells were collected, genetically modified and re-introduced into his body.

Ide-cel CAR T cell therapy uses genetically modified human T cells to recognize and kill cancer cells containing B-cell maturation antigen (BCMA), a target protein found on the surface of myeloma cells.

Bill recovered and returned home after being closely monitored by the CAR T treatment center for several weeks, noting that it wasn’t long before he got back into his routine. According to Jeff, “He quickly began living almost as a non-cancer patient, and that’s a breath of fresh air compared to what he had gone through before.”

Bill agrees. “That ‘drug holiday’ so to speak, is one of the best parts of CAR T therapy,” he said.

Having achieved his goal of celebrating his golden wedding anniversary, this year, he and his wife Corrie are celebrating 52 years together. “For a lot of people, that’s a blessing in itself. Since the trial, there are so many things that we’ve been able to do as a family. We’ve had more time together, more life events and more memories.”

Today, Bill, who continues to have regular check-ups, shows no evidence of disease. “Every day is exciting and a journey,” he said.

As for entering the trial, Bill added, “I felt like a pioneer; I’m hoping that many other people who have multiple myeloma will have the same success that I’ve had. My message for them is not to give up hope.”

When the data comes to life

Whether you call it fate, coincidence or, as multiple myeloma patient Bill Herington chooses to describe it, “divine intervention,” one thing is certain: it’s a rare day that patients and the researchers who helped develop their treatments come face to face.

In 2019, Bill’s son, Jeff, a BMS district business manager, oncology, had trained long and hard to ride in the company’s Coast to Coast for Cancer (C2C4C) cycling event to raise funds for cancer research. His father had recently completed a clinical trial for the company’s ide-cel CAR T cell therapy and had recovered with no evidence of residual disease.

Bill Herington

(from left are Nate Martin, Bill Herington and Jeff Herington)

Training equally hard was Nate Martin, a translational research scientist working on a CAR T project at the company’s site in Seattle. As teams were being created for various legs of the ride, Nate and Jeff had been randomly assigned to the same team.

“A group of us got to talking about what we did for the company and Nate said he was working on a CAR T project,” Jeff recalled. “I told him that my dad just completed a CAR T trial, the ide-cel trial.”

Nate said it’s hard to describe the feeling when he heard that. “Ide-cel was the project I had been working on! When I realized his father was one of our patients, and that he was doing well, it was pretty special,” he said. “I was overjoyed for him and the family.”

Bill, Jeff and Nate met two days later, at the end of their leg of the ride. “Bill is the face of the work we’re doing. As a researcher, I spend all day looking at clinical data about patients but I don’t know their personal side of the story. Meeting Bill gave me a chance to see what all of that data means in real life.”

For Bill and Jeff, Nate has become family. “There’s a deep connection among the three of us that will last a long, long time,” said Bill.