A new approach to killing cancer cells that uses a patient's own immune system has beaten back leukemia in 88 percent of adults, US researchers said today.
The report by scientists in New York offers more good news for the burgeoning field of cancer immunotherapy, which uses what some describe as a "living drug" that was hailed by Science magazine as the breakthrough of 2013.
The latest trial, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, involved 16 people with a kind of blood cancer known as adult B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
Some 1,400 people die of ALL in the United States each year, and while it is among the most treatable cancers, patients often become resistant to chemotherapy and eventually relapse.
For this study, 14 of 16 adult patients achieved complete remission after their T cells were genetically engineered so that they could focus on eradicating cancer.
The patients' median age was 50, and they were all on the brink of death when they entered the trial, having relapsed or discovered that chemotherapy was no longer working.
The longest remission among them so far is about two years, and that patient is still going strong, said lead author Renier Brentjens, director of cellular therapeutics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
Without this therapy, just 30 percent of relapsed patients would be expected to respond to salvage chemotherapy.
The process involves removing some of the patient's T-cells and altering them with a gene to make them recognize a protein, known as CD19, on the cancer cells, so that they can attack them.
Left to their own devices, T cells can attack other harmful invaders in the body but will allow cancer to grow uninterrupted.
"Basically, what we do is re-educate the T cell in the laboratory with gene therapy to recognize and now kill tumor cells," Brentjens said.
After 15 years of work on the technology, known as tumor-targeted chimeric antigen receptor-modified T cells, "it seems to really work in patients with this particular type of cancer," Brentjens told AFP.
Last year, his team reported the first promising results in five adult patients who achieved remission after the therapy.
He estimated that between 60 and 80 people in the United States have since entered experimental trials of the new treatment, which is also being studied in Europe.