New Leukemia Treatment Looks Promising
A cure for cancer has long been viewed as the Holy Grail of biomedical research, and a team of researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York released a study this week that suggests they could be close to finding a real, viable cure for leukemia, an aggressive blood cancer.
The researchers manipulated patients’ T-cells, one type of cell responsible for responding to and destroying threats to the immune system, so that they would attack the patient’s own cancerous B-cells, another type of cell that regulates immune response in healthy people but spreads cancer in leukemia sufferers. The researchers programmed the T-cells to attach themselves to the protein that is present on the surface of cancerous B-cells, allowing the T-cell to effectively destroy the cancer. A New York Times article about the therapy explains the process:
The treatment uses patients’ own T-cells, a type of white blood cell that normally fights viruses and cancer. The patient’s blood is run through a machine that extracts T-cells and returns the rest of the blood to the body. Researchers then do some genetic engineering: they use a disabled virus as a “vector” to carry new genetic material into the T cells, which reprograms them to recognize and kill any cell that carries a particular protein on its surface.
Though the technique was only implemented on a small scale (five patients), the researchers saw dramatic results in some—one patient, the Times article reports, saw his cancer disappear in an amazing (and, we have to say, slightly unbelievable) eight days.
It’s not all good news, though. The treatment did not work in all of the participants, and a Forbes article about the research points out that the treatment can be toxic to the body, necessitating an aggressive steroid regimen to keep the negative side effects at bay. Nonetheless, experts in the field are excited about the topic. The Times article quotes the study’s senior author, Dr. Michel Sadelain:
“We’re creating living drugs,” Dr. Sadelain said. “It’s an exciting story that’s just beginning.”