In breakthrough, patients’ immune systems attack cancer cells
2012-12-11 0:00

By Laura Shin |

In the quest to find a cure for cancer, one dream of researchers has been to find a way to get the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

On Sunday and Monday, at at a meeting of the American Society of Hematology, some doctors at the University of Pennsylvania reported promising results doing just that.

Even more surprisingly, they reprogrammed the immune systems of their cancer patients using a disabled form of the HIV virus. And, one of their success stories is in a child — a girl now age 7, whose cancer has been in remission for seven months.

Other cancer centers, such as the National Cancer Institute and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, are also experimenting with this novel treatment.

This research could transform the treatment of leukemia and related blood cancers. It could even work against cancerous tumors. Dr. Carl June, head of the research team at the University of Pennsylvania, said he hoped that this new treatment would eventually replace bone-marrow transplants, which are extremely risky and expensive.

How the treatment works

At age 5, Emma Whitehead was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Last year, she had relapsed twice after chemotherapy and doctors, having run out of options, tried an experimental treatment that uses a disabled form of HIV to get Emma’s own immune system to kill cancer cells.

The treatment first removes millions of the patients own T-cells and then introduce genes that give T-cells the ability to kill cancer cells. (The role of the disabled HIV virus is to carry these new genes into the T-cells.) These new and improved T-cells are then introduced back into the patient’s veins, where the hope is that they will then multiply and attack the cancer.


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