A new cancer therapy using patients’ own modified white blood cells to target cancer cells and remain in the body to protect it from future cancer tumor growth has scientists saying the breakthrough is “unprecedented in medicine.”
The news unfolded at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS 2016) in Washington, DC, with three international leaders in the field of cancer research: Prof. Dirk Busch of the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Prof. Chiara Bonini of the San Raffaele Scientific Institute, and Prof. Stanley Riddell of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
In one study presented at the meeting, 94% of study participants with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) had complete elimination of their symptoms after they were treated with the modified T-Cells.
In another study, more than 50% of participants with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma were symptom free, while 80% of them had a positive response.
Lead scientist, Prof. Stanley Riddell told BBC, “”[The patients] were really at the end of the line in terms of treatment options and yet a single dose of this therapy put more than ninety percent of these patients in complete remission where we can’t detect any of these leukemia cells.”
Fox News reports Prof. Riddell saying, “This is unprecedented in medicine to be honest, to get response rates in this range in these very advanced patients.”
The T-Cell therapy works like a vaccine. It tells the body’s own immune system to locate and eradicate cancer cells, and it trains the immune system to recognize if those cancer cells return and kill them as well.
Researchers remove white blood cells from a patient and genetically engineer them to recognize and attack the tumor cells. Then, millions of the engineered T-Cells are injected into the patient.
“The merging of gene therapy, synthetic biology and cell biology is providing new treatment options for patients with refractory malignancies and represents a novel class of therapeutics with the potential to transform cancer care,” Prof Riddell said in a press release.
The treatment was not without serious and deadly side effects for some participants. The Irish Examiner reports, “There is one very serious downside to the treatment that affected a number of unlucky patients – a side effect caused by an over-powerful immune response. Seven ALL patients suffered the condition, called cytokine release syndrome (sCRS), so badly they needed intensive care. Two died. The scientists are now trying to find ways to reduce the risk of sCRS.”
The researchers state that much work still needs to be done going forward, and that immunotherapy is not a cure. But, their data demonstrate that immunotherapy has a place in treating some forms of cancer.
Pain is one of the most common symptoms in cancer patients and often has a negative impact on patients’ functional status and quality of life. Pain is often caused by the cancer itself, so if immunotherapy holds the promise to attack and reduce or eliminate the cancer, a reduction in pain would be expected, although this was not the researchers’ focus.