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We Have Lost a Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL) and Chimeric Antigen Receptor T cell (CAR-T) Therapy Pioneer

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Bill Ludwig, 75, of Upper Deerfield Township passed away on Sunday, January 31, 2021 at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania where he had been hospitalized since December 1, 2020. This is the same hospital where, 10 years earlier, his life and the whole world of cancer treatment was changed forever.

From his obituary:

In 2010, pioneered at Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Bill took a chance on a first-of-its-kind cancer clinical trial called CAR T- cell immunotherapy and was their first patient. While Bill became cancer free, his luck spread to others throughout the world.”

Bill was the first CAR-T patient in the world, and that is why I consider him a hero.

Imagine his bravery and complete trust, allowing doctors to draw out his own white blood cells, infect them with a virus that would reprogram their genetic material so that the re-engineered T-cells could attack his chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), grow them outside of his body, and then reinfuse them and to see what would happen.

What happened was that he lived cancer free for more than another decade until passing from a COVID-19 infection. Mr. Ludwig’s case caused a sensation when first published in the NEJM, and inspired the revolution in cancer treatment that we know as cellular therapy today.

Gene therapy. Living drugs.

Without the willingness of the Bills of the world to enter clinic trials and try something completely new and unproven, there would be no scientific progress. I am one of the beneficiaries of his courage.

Bill’s life teaches us that taking smart chances can change not only your own fortune, and that of the whole world.

Rest in peace, Bill Ludwig.

For more background story on Bill’s momentous decision back in 2010, you might enjoy this article from UPENN: Bill’s Leukemia Story: Taking a Chance on a First-of-its-kind Cancer Clinical Trial

Stay strong.

We are all in this together.


Brian Koffman MDCM (retired) MS Ed
Co-Founder, Executive VP and Chief Medical Officer
CLL Society, Inc.