Quebec woman hopes for experimental cancer treatment in U.S.

A 22-year-old Chambly woman diagnosed with cancer could be the first Canadian to take part in an experimental treatment in Texas after exhausting her options in her home country.

Maria Muscari was diagnosed at 18 years old with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She gave up her nursing studies program at Champlain College to undergo extensive cancer treatments, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

"It's been lonely, it's been hard," she said.

Four years later, her cancer is still not responding to the nine treatments she's had.

"We don't really have anything here that can provide her with hope and a remission and a cure," said Dr. April Shamy, Muscari’s oncologist at the Jewish General Hospital.

Yet, Dr. Shamy has cautiously offered some hope.

She says Muscari is a good fit for an experimental treatment offered by the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston, Texas.

This new treatment prompts the body's natural killer cells to attack the Hodgkin cells.

"Everyone has natural killer cells in their bodies, mine just happen to be lazy and don't work as well to recognize the cancer cells in my body and to fight them off and kill them," said Muscari.

To qualify as a candidate for this clinical trial, that is not offered in Canada, Muscari had to have exhausted all her care options at home first.

"We got the best treatment at the Jewish General. It was amazing and they brought (her) to where they can bring her. They couldn't bring her any further and now what's happening… they're keeping her alive until we can get to that treatment," said her stepfather Rick Kidder.

The first hurdle has already been cleared.

Dr. Yago Nieto has approved Muscari as a candidate for the next phase of clinical trials in Texas this September.

The data shows that "the response rate is 94 per cent, and all 24 patients who received the same dose that Maria will receive have responded. The complete remission rate is 69 per cent," he said.

Dr. Shamy says those numbers are promising.

"For people like Maria who've had multiple lines of therapy, that's unheard of. And our goal for a 22-year-old woman is an opportunity for a cure," she said.

Now the next hurdle is financial: expenses for this trip could total $325,000.

Muscari and her family have set up a GoFundMe page to collect donations.

"I really do believe this treatment will save me, it will save me, definitely," said Muscari.

It’s a life-or-death decision, added Kidder.

"We have to get there, or she will die," he said. "We have to get her there."