My life changed in 48 hours

The multi-billion dollar South Australian health and medical precinct, the so-called BioMed City, is blossoming as the southern hemisphere’s largest hub of its type, bringing together research, education, clinical care and business development. Both the $200 million South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and its neighbour, the $2.3 billion Royal Adelaide Hospital, are attracting some of the world’s best medical specialists and professionals. And it’s one of these specialists who helped save the lives of an Australian mother-to-be and her unborn baby

There was a moment about 18 months ago when Elle Halliwell truly believed everything was over. Within just 48 hours of finding out she was living with chronic myeloid leukaemia, the then 30-year-old and her husband, Nick Biasotto, were told she was also pregnant.

Advice from specialists in Sydney suggested she abort the baby for her best chance of survival but what eventuated is a miracle, orchestrated by Halliwell’s strength and determination as well as help from South Australia’s leading chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) expert Professor Timothy Hughes, a haematologist and Cancer Theme Leader at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute. Ultimately, his advice saved her life and the life of their now bouncing baby boy, Tor Felix Biasotto.

“I still look back and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I never imaged I’d be in the place I am now’,” Halliwell, now 32, says. “It’s amazing how much your life can change in such a short period of time – mine changed in 48 hours and it’s continued to really evolve.

“(Back then) I thought to myself, ‘Look back at your life, be happy at what you’ve achieved and how lucky you’ve been and that’s it’.

“To have a second shot at life with a baby … I’m not the most religious person but it does make you believe in a higher power.”

Halliwell is a successful Sydney-based journalist whose extraordinary story captured worldwide attention.

Her journey began back in late April 2016. She visited the doctor to have routine blood, folate and vitamin D tests because she and Biasotto were planning to start a family. The results that came back were shocking. Her blood platelet levels were unusually high and further testing diagnosed Halliwell with the rare form of blood cancer. “There’s the fear of the unknown … you don’t think at 30 you’re going to be that person, not when you’re at the prime of your life,” she says.

Just two days later, an “inkling” in her mind told Halliwell to do a pregnancy test. The two blue lines told her she was expecting. “I was pretty shocked and upset at the time,” she says. “Your instant thought is, ‘Well, I’ve got an incurable cancer, how am I going to carry a baby?’.”

After speaking with haematology specialists at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, doctors recommended the safest option for Halliwell was to abort her baby. They told her, if she went down that path, she should also freeze her eggs and start treatment using the relatively new – but effective – oral-targeted therapy called tyrosine kinase inhibitors, or TKIs, that specifically inhibit the overactive enzymes in the cells and kill the cancer. But it’s a drug that cannot be taken during pregnancy.

Even though Halliwell’s cancer was slow-growing – and the disease had been caught early – without treatment, there was a risk the cancer could turn aggressive and kill her before her pregnancy reached full term. So, within just a few days of finding out the devastating news, Halliwell and her husband were on a plane to Adelaide to seek advice from Professor Hughes, who last month won the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence for his work on CML.

“We’d heard Timothy Hughes was the best of the best and if he said there was a possibility that we could keep the baby, then that would help us decide,” Halliwell says. “He (Prof Hughes) said it wasn’t unreasonable for us to want to keep the baby and that gave us that little bit more confidence. Since then, my haematologist and he have been liaising quite closely as to how best to proceed – I’m a bit of a guinea pig.”

Halliwell began treatment, taking a drug called Interferon, which is safe during pregnancy because it does not cross the placenta. When she reached 36 weeks pregnant, on December 13, 2016, it was decided that it was safest for baby Tor to come into the world so Halliwell could begin TKI treatment. “In the scheme of things, it was a pretty dream birth – he was a really healthy 3.1kg,” Halliwell says. “It (his birth) was pure joy, of course, but also a lot of relief that everything had worked out. “I felt like I had been running a marathon for nine months and I finally crawled across the finish line.”

A few weeks after the birth, Halliwell started the new drugs and will remain on them indefinitely. “It (the medication) is my new normal,” she says. “A lot of trials are being done on patients going off the medication and around 40 to 50 per cent have managed to go off indefinitely and stay in remission. The biggest determinate of that is staying on the drugs for a long time.”

These days Halliwell, who is writing a book about her journey due out near Mother’s Day next year, still pinches herself – eternally thankful Professor Hughes believed in her at a time when she needed hope. “He’s an amazing guy – the things that he’s done for people living with this illness is incredible,” she says. “He’s testament that, with support from the public, research like his can change people’s lives.”

WORDS – Katrina Stokes
PICTURE – Bianca Cheah

South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute

Breakthroughs include:

FINDING a major opportunity for infertile couples to achieve a successful pregnancy without the need for IVF, using a 100-year-old medical technique of flushing the woman’s fallopian tubes with an iodised poppy seed oil. In a study involving 1119 women, almost 40 per cent of infertile women in the poppy seed oil group achieved successful pregnancies within six months of the technique being performed, compared to 29 per cent of infertile women whose tubes were flushed with water.

DISCOVERY that the MNK gene, nicknamed the “fat gene” which is present in everyone, has a role in weight gain and the development of diseases such as type 2 diabetes when triggered by a high-fat diet. The discovery has worldwide implications in the fight against obesity and conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

FINDING a connection between a particular protein in the body and how well people with chronic myeloid leukaemia respond to the drug Glivec. The discovery showing the higher the protein level, the poorer the response, paves the way for

tailored treatment and predicting a patient’s long-term response to drug therapy.

PLANS to grow human brain cells by taking a skin scraping, reducing it to stem cells then reprogramming them to grow into neurons, in order to seek treatment for Parkinson’s disease by comparing neurons of people with the disease to healthy cells. The functional and genetic analysis will be a unique approach to try to understand Parkinson’s, which has no cure – current treatments only help to mask the symptoms temporarily.