In March 2012, when Justin was in the sixth grade, he started to rapidly lose weight, was experiencing extreme exhaustion and night sweats. After multiple visits to the doctor but no answers, his parents finally took him to the hospital for more intensive testing, including a bone marrow biopsy. One day later they received the shocking diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Justin began a regimen of chemotherapy treatments which he would continue to receive over the next 3 and a half years, during which he was homeschooled for much of this time. His family, friends, and neighbors in New Egypt, NJ started a support movement in his honor called “Justinsanity.” They even held a carnival to raise money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).
During his treatment, Justin was unable to play sports, but he coached a 5th and 6th grade basketball team and led them to ten straight wins and a first place conference finish. He was able to return to school in the eighth grade. But in November 2016, Justin’s cancer came back, and he missed most of his junior year of high school.
At this point, his doctors wanted him to try a stem cell transplant. But despite the chemotherapy treatments Justin was not in complete remission from the cancer, and he and his parents had reservations about trying the transplant.
When the Pritikins decided to transfer him to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for treatment, his doctors there informed them of a clinical trial for an investigational and revolutionary therapy called CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) T-cell immunotherapy. LLS had been funding this work at CHOP and University of Pennsylvania for two decades, having invested more than $20 million toward its development.
After nearly five years of missing school and friends since his first diagnosis, it took just one CAR-T treatment to get Justin back on his feet in remission again. Justin did not experience any of the dangerous side effects that some patients experience when receiving CAR-T, and at age 17, the high school student was able to spend his summer doing what he loves as a camp counselor at Liberty Lake Day Camp which is run by his parents.
Unfortunately, Justin and his family learned in late August that the CAR-T cells had stopped replicating. So in late September, Justin returned to the hospital to undergo a stem cell transplant in the hope that it will work before his leukemia cells return.
Justin’s dad, Andy Pritikin says, “It was horrible watching Justin go through the regular chemo. To watch him go through this new CAR-T treatment was like watching a magic trick. You really can’t believe what they do.”
Despite the CAR-T only working for three months, Justin’s parents are grateful he was given three healthy months, and hopeful that the remission granted by the CAR-T cells will make his stem cell transplant more likely to work.
“As he is entering his senior year of high school he’s not happy about having to have a stem cell transplant, but he is eager to get through it and past it- he is a true warrior,” Andy says.
“Even if the CAR-T only put him in remission for a short time it’s still so valuable,” said his mother, Jill Pritikin. “He’s very active, very social, and for three months he got to be that kid again. I love that we had that opportunity.”