Before Colorado State University made the decision to move to remote teaching, learning and working in March 2020, Dr. Heather Pidcoke, chief medical research officer, helped update the University’s pandemic plan for the Office of the Vice President for Research. She worked with research associate deans in all eight colleges to create a plan for a possible shutdown of in-person classes and non-essential operations. Pidcoke also worked with scientists to figure out regulatory requirements as they retooled research projects to help with the pandemic.
By August, she was leading a Rapid Response Team that met daily to review data and other information collected on campus related to the coronavirus efforts.
She was also dealing with symptoms of a return of a cancer that had been in remission for years.
First diagnosed with follicular lymphoma in 2014, she went through treatment, including chemotherapy, and the cancer went into remission. Unfortunately, the lymphoma returned in 2018 and, again, last year, during the coronavirus pandemic.
She decided to participate in new clinical trial at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and was among the first patients to receive an innovative cellular immunotherapy treatment in Fall 2020.
CAR-T cells – chimeric antigen receptor T cells – are genetically engineered to fight stubborn cancers. These cells are infused into patients like Pidcoke with difficult to treat or frequently recurring cancers at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and at other leading hospitals and health systems across the country.
Pidcoke said she did not expect the cancer to return as soon as it did last year.
“The fact that the cancer came back so soon was hard to deal with,” she said. “Having gone through chemotherapy when I was first diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, I wasn’t sure what other therapies might be available.”
Initially, Pidcoke and her oncologist, Dr. Manali Kamdar, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, decided to watch and wait. But in July 2020, Pidcoke developed symptoms related to the cancer and began to explore treatment options with her doctor.
Pidcoke shared the news about the cancer recurrence with CSU Vice President for Research Alan Rudolph and Christa Johnson, associate vice president for research. She also said it wasn’t going to stop her from continuing pandemic-related work.
“I let them know I’d love to keep working, even when I eventually had to go into the hospital for two weeks to be monitored during the clinical trial,” she said.
They developed a contingency plan, putting Pidcoke’s husband, Bernard Krause, in charge to make the call to CSU if Pidcoke’s symptoms or condition worsened.
“We had a plan, but the really great thing was we didn’t need it,” she said.