Medical Miracles

Astonishing stories of patients who cheated death or permanent disability, and the physicians who saved their lives.



(page 4 of 8)

Dr. Regina Jakacki can’t stifle a smile when she talks about Leah Koller. Her smile often becomes an out-and-out grin. That’s because of how Leah’s doing. At 12, eight years after she was diagnosed with a glioma — a complicated form of brain tumor — the Waynesburg girl is thriving, thanks to an experimental treatment spearheaded by the Brain Care Institute at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

The team included Dr. Jakacki, director of the neuro-oncology program, and her colleague, pediatric neurosurgery chief Dr. Ian Pollack. The treatment that has been working for Leah is, in essence, a vaccine — not entirely unlike a vaccination against mumps or measles — that attacks certain proteins in the tumor. A team at the University of Pittsburgh and Children’s developed the vaccine, which is the first of its kind in the country.

Because of the tumor’s location, doctors knew that removing it would cause her to be paralyzed on her right side. And it also appeared that Leah’s tumor was spreading throughout the brain, which made surgery an even less viable option. Radiation therapy to the brain can cause severe developmental damage in young patients. So last year, with the Kollers’ blessing, they turned to the experimental vaccine.

The idea of using vaccines came out of a longstanding program that examined how they’d affect malignant brain tumors that weren’t responding to standard therapies like surgery, radiation and chemo, which aren’t curative. Doctors at Children’s suspected that immunotherapy might work better. So they looked at the antigens on the tumor cells and identified several targets — what Dr. Pollack calls “little snippets of protein” that could be used as a vaccine. An early study in adults was encouraging, so Drs. Pollack and Jakacki moved on to children, who tend to have more robust immune systems.

At first, in 2009, even the doctors were skeptical about the vaccine. “I wasn’t a complete believer,” Dr. Jakacki recalls. “I wasn’t even sure people were going to come for it.” For starters, a patient needed to have a certain tissue type to be eligible — a type that is found in only about 40 to 45 percent of the general population. “Initially, it sounded like a pie-in-the-sky kind of thing,” Dr. Jakacki says.

Not much happened at first, and few volunteers came forward. Then enrollment peaked, and progress surfaced in a few patients. One child got much worse during the treatment, and the tumor looked much bigger. However, throughout the next several weeks, the child improved, and an MRI showed that the tumor had shrunk to less than half the size it had been, indicating that the tumor had swelled as the vaccine attacked the tumor cells — but the vaccine was indeed working. Says Dr. Jakacki, “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Really?!’”

Leah’s tumor was low-grade and slow-growing yet complicated; it started expanding into the coating of the brain. Leah was put on chemo, but the radiation that could have really tackled the tumor would have also affected her cognition. When she started the vaccine, she had few side effects. But an MRI taken after nine weeks showed the tumor actually seemed worse. They kept going. Then it looked stable. Then, slowly, it shrank — enough that its shrinkage finally became obvious.

Now, Leah’s tumor is about 50 percent smaller — 75 percent, Dr. Jakacki says, if you take into account dramatic shrinkage in the areas of metastasis. Twenty-seven children have tried the treatment, and a dozen remain on it. And Drs. Pollack and Jakacki are looking at ways the vaccine usage might be expanded. That, too, makes Dr. Jakacki grin.

Meanwhile, Leah is starting to flourish.And there’s a new member of the Koller clan these days, not related by blood but rather sweat and tears: Dr. Jakacki, who finds herself an honorary Koller for life.

“She’s just part of our family, whether she wants to be or not,” says Leah’s mother, Raelene. “She’s part of us now.”
— Ted Anthony

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

This month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

Love it or hate it, winter is upon us. Because some of us may think there's a lot not to like, we bring you 50+ things to eat, drink and do –– and some helpful tips –– that'll keep the blues at bay.
Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Pittsburgh Magazine presents the honorees from its inaugural Excellence in Nursing awards. Meet our judges' choices and learn what makes them remarkable in their field.
Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

A regal ruggedness characterizes the season's menswear looks.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

When viewed from the foot of the South Side Slopes of Pittsburgh, the stairs ascending Josephine Street form a massive image that consists of more than 7,500 individual mosaic tiles.
Joe Manganiello Plays the Good Guy for Children’s Hospital

Joe Manganiello Plays the Good Guy for Children’s Hospital

The actor, director and Mt. Lebanon native is joining the board of trustees of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation.
Pittsburgh Man Sets World Record By Lifting 1 Million Pounds

Pittsburgh Man Sets World Record By Lifting 1 Million Pounds

Matt Scoletti accomplishes the feat in just under nine hours.
Why Thanksgiving Comes Every Day for 3 Pittsburgh-Area Men

Why Thanksgiving Comes Every Day for 3 Pittsburgh-Area Men

They owe their lives to one man who lives on in each of them.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in December

This month's best bets in The 'Burgh.
50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

50+ Things That Will Make You Enjoy Winter in Pittsburgh

Love it or hate it, winter is upon us. Because some of us may think there's a lot not to like, we bring you 50+ things to eat, drink and do –– and some helpful tips –– that'll keep the blues at bay.
Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Excellence in Nursing: Meet Our 2016 Honorees

Pittsburgh Magazine presents the honorees from its inaugural Excellence in Nursing awards. Meet our judges' choices and learn what makes them remarkable in their field.
Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

Choreographed Style: Winter Fashion with The Pittsburgh Ballet

A regal ruggedness characterizes the season's menswear looks.
Restaurant Review: B52 in Lawrenceville is a Levantine Lifter

Restaurant Review: B52 in Lawrenceville is a Levantine Lifter

Omar Abuhejleh taps deep into his roots at his vegan cafe that's focused on Levantine cuisine.
Why You Can't Beat The Weather in Pittsburgh in The Winter

Why You Can't Beat The Weather in Pittsburgh in The Winter

I’ve traveled a lot of miles, and I still stare in bewilderment at people who tell me they’ve moved to a place because “You can’t beat the weather.”
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

The Mosaic Stairway: You've Never Seen Steps Like These

When viewed from the foot of the South Side Slopes of Pittsburgh, the stairs ascending Josephine Street form a massive image that consists of more than 7,500 individual mosaic tiles.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
The Café Carnegie Now Open in Oakland

The Café Carnegie Now Open in Oakland

Chefs Sonja Finn and Becca Hegarty helm the refurbished restaurant at the Carnegie Museums.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best of the Burgh: Pumpkin Patches in the Pittsburgh Area

Best of the Burgh: Pumpkin Patches in the Pittsburgh Area

We’ve compiled the best pumpkin patches for fall family fun.

Comments


Why Wait For Summer? Head to Kennywood's Holiday Lights

Why Wait For Summer? Head to Kennywood's Holiday Lights

The park's winter celebration is great for families and a fine choice for anyone who loves Christmas (and/or funnel cake).

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Big Ten-Champion Nittany Lions More Worthy Than Buckeyes

Big Ten-Champion Nittany Lions More Worthy Than Buckeyes

For some reason Ohio State is ranked No. 2 in the latest playoff rankings and Penn State is No. 7. That has to change if Penn State beats Wisconsin on Saturday night.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Locket Full of Joy

Locket Full of Joy

The handcrafted piece opens to hidden treasures.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Ten Upcoming Flicks Every Oscar-Watcher Should See

Ten Upcoming Flicks Every Oscar-Watcher Should See

PM film critic Sean Collier picks ten forthcoming flicks likely to rake in nominations for the 89th Academy Awards.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Before the Proposal: How to Ask her Parents' Permission

Before the Proposal: How to Ask her Parents' Permission

It can be more intimidating than the actual proposal, asking a father for his daughter's hand in marriage. Three grooms share their stories of how they popped that first big question.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
Seasonal Shopping: CMOA Store Holiday House, J.Crew Mercantile Opens Doors

Seasonal Shopping: CMOA Store Holiday House, J.Crew Mercantile Opens Doors

The Carnegie Museum of Art is full of Christmas cheer — and great deals. Plus, get the scoop on The Block Northway’s latest retail offering.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Tuba and Euphonium Players Invited to Join in Christmas Concert

Tuba and Euphonium Players Invited to Join in Christmas Concert

Waynesburg University will present a TUBACHRISTMAS concert on Dec. 9.

Comments