Cancer; Discovery; Patient Stories

Chuck’s story: Adventure and advocacy years after historic stem cell transplant

Cancer; Discovery; Patient Stories

Johnie Mae and Chuck Dandridge have been enjoying international travel in the years since he received a first-of-its-kind modified stem cell transplant from a family member at UT Southwestern in 2015.

If you are looking for Chuck Dandridge of Mansfield, Texas, good luck! When the retired YMCA director isn’t sinking shots on the basketball court or visiting his grandson in Denver, he’s likely traveling the world with his wife of 48 years, Johnie Mae.

Mr. Dandridge, a self-described homebody, was thrust into the unknown in 2013 when routine cholesterol and blood work at his doctor’s office revealed low blood counts. He was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of leukemia that by 2014 had progressed to acute myeloid leukemia (AML), the most common – and most deadly – form of leukemia in adults.

At his wife’s urging, Mr. Dandridge, then 62, accepted a referral to UTSW’s Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center. “He likes small stuff,” Mrs. Dandridge said. “He doesn't like the drive to Dallas.”

But it’s a good thing Mr. Dandridge took that 40-minute trip.

UTSW doctors determined his AML was caused by the genetic mutation IDH 2, in which the body makes an abnormal protein that leads to excessive cell growth, causing cancer. He needed a stem cell transplant to replace his immune system and correct the mutation.

Robert Collins, M.D.
Robert Collins, M.D.

On a leap of faith, Mr. Dandridge agreed to enter two leukemia clinical trials at UT Southwestern, embarking on a journey that would result in freedom from cancer and making medical history. In 2015, he become the first adult in the U.S. to receive a newly modified stem cell transplant that uses genetically engineered blood cells from a family member – his then 31-year-old son, Jon.

“My skin is my own DNA, but inside I’m all Jon,” said Mr. Dandridge, who is now under the care of Robert Collins, M.D. “I have my son Jon’s DNA in my bloodstream, bone marrow, and immune system.”

Mr. Dandridge, now 72, has been cancer free for nearly nine years. Despite a few minor health challenges, such as developing mild graft-versus-host disease and “hand-me-down chickenpox” after the transplant, he’s living life to the fullest and helping others navigate treatment options – including clinical trials – in their own AML journeys.

On a leap of faith, Chuck Dandridge agreed to enter two leukemia clinical trials at UT Southwestern, embarking on a journey that would result in freedom from cancer and making medical history.

Navigating AML treatment

Leukemia, often considered a childhood disease, is not uncommon in adults and accounts for about 1% of cancers. AML is an aggressive form of leukemia, with an estimated 20,800 new cases diagnosed annually. More than 11,220 people die of AML in the U.S. each year, and nearly all are adults.

With AML, abnormal white blood cells build up in the bone marrow and disrupt production of normal blood cells. This imbalance interferes with immune system function and can cause symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Easy bruising and bleeding
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weight loss

AML progresses quickly without personalized treatment, which can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, molecular targeted therapies, and immunotherapy. Severe cases of AML require a stem cell transplant, also called bone marrow transplantation, but Mr. Dandridge was too sick to get one.

Under the care of former UTSW clinical researcher Madhuri Vusirikala, M.D., Mr. Dandridge enrolled in a clinical study of an advanced medication to target his genetic mutation. Over eight months, the drug eliminated enough of the cancer to make him eligible for transplantation – with the right donor.

First-of-its kind stem cell transplant

Chuck Dandridge and his family first shared their story with UT Southwestern in 2015 after the stem cell transplant.

Successful stem cell transplants require as close a genetic match as possible to avoid complications of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), which is when the body rejects the new cells as a threat.

Mr. Dandridge had no eligible siblings who could have provided the closest match. Scouring the stem cell donor database did not turn up a match, either. People of color have more complex human leukocyte antigen (HLA) gene groups to match for compared with White patients. More than half of registered bone marrow donors in the U.S.-based Be the Match registry are White (5.5 million people) compared with 8% Black donors (about 800,000 people).

Because of this, an estimated 29% of Black patients find a non-relative donor match in the NMDP, a collaborative database including Be the Match and international centers, compared with 79% likelihood among White patients. See how to join the stem cell donor registry.

The next best option for Mr. Dandridge was his son, who was happy to oblige. However, the risk of GVHD is higher in a child match than a sibling match. So, Mr. Dandridge embarked on another clinical trial for a state-of-the-art cell engineering process that, at the time, had never been done in an adult.

The trial procedure involved two unique steps:

  • Processing the younger Mr. Dandridge’s donated stem cells to reduce the risk of rejection.
  • Engineering the blood cells to include a “self-destruct" gene that can be targeted with the medication rimiducid to eliminate cells damaged by GVHD, containing its side effects.

The transplant was successful, and despite the risks of a less-optimal stem cell match, Mr. Dandridge dealt with only minor GVHD symptoms.

“I came down with chickenpox and shingles in 2019, but I didn’t remember having chickenpox as a kid and you have to have them before you can get shingles. Then Johnie reminded me that Jon had chickenpox years ago, and since I have his immune system in me, I ended up getting them, too!”

Mr. Dandridge took ruxolitinib (Jakafi®) for a skin rash and eye irritation, which may have been associated with GVHD. After having surgery for prostate cancer in 2019, Mr. Dandridge says that he is feeling better than expected at age 72.

“My body is holding up pretty good,” he said. “I told Dr. Collins, I may live to be 95 years old!”

Encouraging others to join trials

Mr. Dandridge credits his recovery to the advanced treatments he got by joining clinical trials. UT Southwestern is a national leader in leukemia research and care – and the only Texas hospital to host Beat AML, a national Cancer Moonshot clinical trial to improve personalized AML treatment. Our experts have performed more than 2,500 stem cell transplants. Explore ongoing AML clinical trials.

Chuck and Johnie Mae Dandridge
“I share my story so people will know that you don't necessarily have to be afraid when you hear that you have leukemia,” Chuck Dandridge said. “It doesn’t have to be the end of the world to get this diagnosis.”

“Even if the clinical trial treatments didn’t work for him, we knew that what the doctors learned could help somebody else one day,” said Mrs. Dandridge.

Over the years, several people have reached out to Mr. Dandridge and his family after seeing their story on CBS News, in The Oklahoman, and on social media. He’s enjoyed the chance to encourage others to consider clinical trial treatment options in their own AML journeys.

“I share my story so people will know that you don't necessarily have to be afraid when you hear that you have leukemia,” said Mr. Dandridge. “It doesn’t have to be the end of the world to get this diagnosis.”

Mrs. Dandridge retired in 2016 and eagerly exchanged sleeping on hospital hide-a-beds for hotel rooms with sunset views. In 2019, the couple toured South Africa on the first of what they hope will be many international vacations. Their next adventure will be a transatlantic cruise in 2024, with their sights set on touring Rome and Venice.

"Going through cancer treatment at UT Southwestern opened up a whole new world for Chuck, and gave him a different side of Dallas, and also of bigger hospitals,” said Mrs. Dandridge.

“I'm really glad I went to UTSW,” Mr. Dandridge added. “The campus is easy to get around once you learn it, and the warm, welcoming staff made things simple for us. I think I'll be a UT Southwestern patient for life!”

To talk with a leukemia specialist, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.