It was spring 2013 when 4-year-old Phineas came down with a cold and slight fever that wouldn’t go away. The symptoms looked alarmingly familiar to his parents, Carlos and Tina Sandi. They’d lost their youngest daughter, Althea, to leukemia just six years earlier.

Familiar foe

Tina took Phineas to the pediatrician. Hours later, they were rushing to the hospital.

Phineas had leukemia.

“It was a familiar nightmare,” Carlos said. “It felt like cancer was hunting our children.”

“'Immunotherapy for cancer is a completely new way of thinking about how to treat this disease.'”

Phineas began treatment immediately. But within weeks, it was apparent that he wasn’t getting any better. “Phineas wasn’t responding to therapy and his disease was getting out of control,” says Dr. Daniel Lee, a pediatric oncologist at the National Cancer Institute. “For those patients, yes, you can try more chemotherapy and more intensive chemotherapy, but you really have a very, very low chance of curing a patient like that. For Phineas, there really was no other option.”

The new ally

That is, until they found one particular, immunotherapy clinical trial. “Immunotherapy for cancer is a completely new way of thinking about how to treat this disease,” explains Dr. Crystal Mackall, associate director of the Stanford Cancer Institute in Stanford, California. “It’s augmenting, or jazzing up, the immune system and training it to go after the cancer. And that’s a fundamentally different way of killing cancer cells.”

During the trial, some of Phineas’ cells were harvested through a blood draw, then grown and altered in the lab. Eleven days later, those cells were injected back into Phineas. The cells then went to work, killing the cancer cells. “Within a month,” Dr. Lee says, “Phineas was free of leukemia as far as we could tell.”

THE SANDI FAMILY: Phineas stands happy and healthy alongside his parents, Tina and Carlos, and his older sister, Fiona. Photo: St. Baldrick's Foundation

His parents couldn’t be more grateful for the research that saved Phineas’ life. Now, two years later, Phineas just goes to the hospital for annual check-ups. He’s a regular 7-year-old kid who loves pepperoni pizza and junk food—when his mom lets him have it—and he’s quick to laugh about anything potty-related. He is now an Ambassador for our foundation.

Like many kids, Phineas wants to be a lot of things when he grows up, maybe a monster truck driver, or an artist or an architect. But right now, after everything he’s been through, he’s just enjoying being a kid.