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Killing Cancer Like the Common Cold

Story Highlights
  • An experimental cancer treatment aims to “teach” a patient’s own immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells.
  • Genetic modification of native fighter T-cells programs them to destroy the cancer cells.
  • Three different research groups are reporting high rates of remission using the process.

Cancer researchers have developed an experimental therapy to “teach” a patient’s own immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. For Nick Wilkins, a now 15-year-old boy whose leukemia had defied all other attempts at treatment, the investigational therapy was a game-changer: He has now been cancer-free for six months.

At an annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology in 2013, researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reported they had treated 21 other young cancer patients and 18 have gone into complete remission, with one remission lasting 20 months.

Similar Studies Ongoing Elsewhere

In addition to the Philadelphia group, two other cancer centers—Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York and the National Cancer Institute—are also expected to report promising results with similar types of therapies. In a CNN report, Dr. David Porter, a hematologist and oncologist at the University of Pennsylvania where the study is ongoing, said, “This is absolutely one of the more exciting advances I’ve seen in cancer therapy in the last 20 years… We’ve entered into a whole new realm of medicine.”

To date, this type of therapy is only available within the confines of a trial study. However, Dr. Renier Brentjens, director for cellular therapeutics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, said he doesn’t think it will be long before it is widely available: “When you have three centers all with a substantial number of patients seeing the same thing—that these cells work in this disease–you know it’s not a fluke.”

So far, the genetically modified fighter T-cells have remained alive and active, at least up to the three years of follow-up. It is believed that cancer relapses with this type of personalized therapy will be easier to manage than with traditional treatment. “One of the best aspects of this new treatment is that it won’t be terribly difficult to reproduce at other medical centers,” says Dr. Porter, “and one day, instead of being used only experimentally, it could be available to anyone who needed it.”

So, What Exactly is It That They’re doing?

Similar to the theoretical mechanisms behind vaccinations, the experimental therapies are designed to manipulate the body’s own immune system into recognizing and fighting the cancer cells. After removing some of the patient’s fighter T-cells, which are active in the natural defense system of the body, the scientists reprogram the cells by inserting new genes, turning them into “hunters” specifically engineered to recognize and kill the cancer cells. The difference is that this immunological manipulation occurs after the fact when the cancer is already present, not preventatively as is common with vaccines, which “preempt” the infection process and bypass the natural development of the body’s own immune system.

Dr. Brentjens says he will never forget the first patient he treated. Initially, the patient had an extremely heavy load of cancer cells in his bone marrow. Following treatment, Brentjens couldn’t find a single cancer cell by microscopic examination. “I can’t describe what that’s like,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”

Read  the full December 9, 2013 article “Killing cancer like the common cold” at CNN.

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