New therapy saves toddler with aggressive leukaemia after chemotherapy did not work


SINGAPORE – Two-year-old Mathias saved coming down with extreme fever. Then his family seen bruises on his inner thighs.

“We thought he was being punished in childcare,” said his father, Mr Michael Teo, 39, a civil servant.

Following a second go to to a traditional practitioner, the family was prompt to take the toddler to KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH).

By then, tiny blood spots resembling pinpricks started displaying on his legs, said the boy’s mother, Ms Adriana Koh, 34, who works inside the experience acquisition self-discipline.

Mathias was taken to KKH on a Sunday in April 2022 as his mom and father have been afraid he might have caught dengue fever.

A blood check out revealed the toddler had an alarmingly elevated white blood cell rely, and he was promptly admitted to the Children’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Two days later, the medical docs instructed his mom and father that Mathias has leukaemia – a most cancers that begins inside the cells of the bone marrow the place blood cells are made – and actually useful chemotherapy.

“It was a shock. We have no family history (of leukaemia), and he was born healthy and had been healthy since,” said Mr Teo.

Leukaemia is the commonest childhood most cancers on the earth. In Singapore, about 150 kids are recognized with most cancers yearly. About two-thirds are leukaemia circumstances, in accordance with KKH.

In the ICU, Mathias would scream in fear each time the medical docs received right here to draw his blood for quite a few exams. He moreover screamed for his mom and father after they wanted to go away the ward for the workers to hold out a bone marrow biopsy.

Mr Teo said they wished quite a bit to lift the ache their son was feeling nevertheless felt totally helpless.

“We broke down outside the ICU. We hugged each other,” he added.

The toddler didn’t reply to the first spherical of chemotherapy and was positioned on a stronger dose inside the second stage of the therapy. He was repeatedly hungry and asking his grandmother for meals every half-hour.

Said Mr Teo: “He had to eat very fresh food… so she had to make the fresh food, and he was still whining and whining.”


Mathias turned weak and bloated until “we almost couldn’t recognise him”, Mr Teo added.

When the medical docs assessed the boy’s response to the first 5 weeks of chemotherapy, they confirmed he had an aggressive kind of leukaemia – pre-B acute lymphoblastic leukaemia involving the KMT2A gene.

“In Mathias’ case, the genetic changes found in the leukaemia cells are known to be high-risk and not as responsive to conventional chemotherapy,” said Associate Professor Joyce Lam, a senior advertising and marketing advisor at KKH’s haematology/oncology service and medical director of the hospital’s cell processing laboratory.

Worldwide, such victims have poor prognosis, with as a lot as 80 per cent succumbing to the sickness.

As Mathias didn’t reply to chemotherapy, his medical docs chosen a model new and promising therapy known as CAR-T treatment, adopted by a stem cell or bone marrow transplant.

Car-T, or chimeric antigen receptor T-cell treatment, makes use of the physique’s private immune system to help wrestle essentially the most cancers.

It was accepted in Singapore in March 2021. In the treatment, a kind of white blood cells that help wrestle infections – T cells – are genetically altered in a lab and infused once more into the affected particular person.

The re-engineered T cells – now known as Car-T cells – buy a model new receptor that lets them discover and destroy essentially the most cancers cells.

The work was executed at KKH’s Teo Sok Yong and Goh Cheng Liang childhood most cancers lab, which opened in early 2022. It moreover processed the healthful donor cells for Mathias’ stem cell transplant in August 2022.


About 10 to fifteen per cent of leukaemia circumstances require “extraordinary efforts to treat”, said Dr Michaela Seng, a senior advertising and marketing advisor at KKH’s haematology/oncology service, and considered one of many medical docs caring for Mathias.

“So Car-T is now the new tool, which basically spares the (patient) a lot of the toxicities, either by replacing a whole chunk of strong chemo or even replacing transplant completely – but in his case, we had to do both.”

Still, Mathias was spared from further months of high-dose chemotherapy, Dr Seng added.

The method moreover meant he might avoid radiotherapy publicity to his whole physique, decreasing the hazard of acute and energy circumstances in his later life, collectively with earlier onset of these circumstances when compared with his pals in maturity, she said.

Such radiation publicity would have been essential in his case in a typical transplant state of affairs, Dr Seng added.

“Now we can differentiate which cancer needs less treatment, which one needs more, and for those that need more, (we ask ourselves), do we have better-designed therapies to avoid some of the side effects?” she said.


Mathias turned the youngest affected particular person at KKH to have undergone Car-T therapy. The one-time therapy is often recognized to be costly. The Kymriah Car-T treatment, for instance, comes with a reported ticket of US$475,000 (S$640,000).

As for the type of Car-T therapy that Mathias had, it’s at current solely on the market to the hospital’s victims as part of evaluation.

When Mathias was ready for the transplant one month after the Car-T treatment, his father went to the Singapore General Hospital to donate his stem cells. After his cells have been harvested, they’ve been quickly despatched to the KKH lab for processing sooner than they’ve been transplanted into Mathias.

After the transplant, Mathias suffered from intense vomiting and diarrhoea for a few week, his father said. “He would vomit and then immediately start eating. If he was eating, it was a good sign.”

For some six months till earlier this 12 months, Mathias was once more on the hospital every week for the medical docs to look at his most cancers. It is now in full remission, and the frequency of the monitoring will steadily decrease with time.

The couple, who’ve an older daughter, proceed to stress about their son nevertheless after that ICU episode, they’ve resolved to be further optimistic for his sake, said Mr Teo.

“We put aside our sadness… and focused on his treatment,” he added.

“At least, there is a solution. After coming here (to KKH) and talking to other parents, we learnt that as long as the doctors tell us there is a solution, it’s good news.”

This article was first revealed in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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