Rare diagnosis leads patient to ‘wonder drug’
By Sarah Sweatt Osborn
RYAN CORBI’S EXPERIENCE with a rare type of leukemia involves what some might see as a series of fortunate coincidences. Corbi, who holds a master’s degree in theology, sees the experience as a series of blessings.
In November 2004, Corbi—then a senior at Villanova University—consulted his family doctor for treatment of a bacterial infection. The infection seemed to clear up, and he never went back for the follow-up blood work his doctor had recommended. The following spring, when he began experiencing similar symptoms, he went to the university’s student health center—where, as it happened, his doctor had recently begun practicing.
Corbi recalls, “The first thing she said was, ‘You never came back to see me. Roll up your sleeve; we’re taking blood.’”
The test results set off alarm bells: His white blood cell counts were elevated, suggesting leukemia. The next day, not wasting any time, Corbi’s father Tom hand-delivered his son’s medical records to Fox Chase, where Corbi’s mother had had a precancerous mass removed the previous fall.
At the Center, hematologist Mitchell Smith happened to pass by and overhear Corbi’s father talking about his son’s case. He offered to take a look at Corbi’s records and, upon reviewing them, immediately suggested that the young man come to Fox Chase for further testing. As luck would have it, Smith had an opening in his schedule that very week.
“I was seeing a doctor less than five days after my blood results came back,” Corbi notes.
Tests revealed chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML, a potentially deadly disease in which the patient’s bone marrow manufactures too many white blood cells. Relatively rare at Corbi’s age, it usually strikes the middle-aged and elderly. The condition is linked to the Philadelphia chromosome, a genetic abnormality discovered at Fox Chase in 1959. The discovery led to the development of treatments that block the anomaly’s effect—including imatinib (marketed as Gleevec®), which Corbi now takes daily. It was approved just a few years before his diagnosis.
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Corbi says he has experienced neither symptoms of CML nor side effects from its treatment. “Twenty-five years ago, it would have been a bone marrow transplant or death,” he says. “Now they have this wonder drug that is no more inconvenient than taking a vitamin. … I haven’t really had to deal with being sick from this disease a day in my life.”
Seven years after his diagnosis, Corbi says his CML remains in remission. Recently married and looking forward to starting a family, he is “planning in terms of the next 25 years instead of the next one or two.”
Whether the events surrounding his diagnosis and treatment are viewed as coincidence or blessing, Corbi says his life has been changed by the experience. For starters, he says, learning he had CML nudged him toward a career in theology, a field in which he hopes to teach.
“It galvanized me and shifted not just my personal faith and development but also how that relates to other people,” he says. “I want to share my experience with others and help to educate them.”