A revolutionary breakthrough in cancer treatment that is being described as a "game-changer" would see the body's own immune system utilized to attack diseased cells, rather than rely on sickening chemotherapy, researchers announced lately.
Scientists at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York say they have successfully experimented with the new procedure, using 16 people who had advanced leukemia and had otherwise run out of treatment options. The researchers said the patients underwent targeted T cell therapy, which then eliminated the cancerous cells in most of the patients, CBS News reported.
Dr. David Agus, a CBS News expert contributor who leads the Westside Cancer Center at the University of Southern California, called the team's work "remarkable research."
"They took 16 patients with advanced leukemia, who had failed chemotherapy or not responded at all to chemotherapy, so they classically have weeks to months to live. They took their own immune cells out... and inserted a homing mechanism to target the cancer cells," said Agus. "The cancer cells were growing on their own, unrelentingly, and these immune cells came in and they could target and kill them. They become assassins. So, making their own immune cells become assassins and it worked."
Study senior author Dr. Renier Brentjens, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, told HealthDay News: "First and foremost, we've shown that this isn't a fluke. This is a reliable result. ... We're still very much in the early stages of development. ... [T]his is potentially the first promising new therapy [for advanced B-cell ALL] in a long time."
In additional comments to Agence France-Presse, Brentjens said, "Basically, what we do is re-educate the T cell in the laboratory with gene therapy to recognize and now kill tumor cells."
Following 15 years of study on the procedure, Brentjens said that "it seems to really work in patients with this particular type of cancer."
Of the 16 patients who took part in the study, 14 achieved total remission. But, Agus said, the treatment does not cure cancer on its own.
"What we know is this cancer comes back and the only way to cure it is with a bone marrow transplant," he said. "You can only go for a bone marrow transplant if you've first eliminated the cancer cells in the blood."
The research oncologist said the therapy was able to remove cancer cells from the blood effectively, and that "most of the patients were able to go on to transplant." At that point, he said, patients can actually be cured of the disease.
'Treatment might work too well'
Some of the biggest problems with current cancer treatments such as chemotherapy are the side effects: The drugs involved in chemotherapy can make patients very sick and weak. And while Agus said all treatments will have some side effects, the new therapy might actually work "too well."
"These cells kill all of the cancer at once and it's actually the toxins from the dead cancer cells that cause the side effects," he said, adding that, since the initial success among the 16 patients, between 60 and 80 in the U.S. have signed onto trials, which are also being launched in Europe.
The oncologist said the breakthrough treatment was not possible even a decade ago, because it was built on years of prior trial-and-error involving gene therapy.
At present, the therapy has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Agus said the treatment can cost upwards of $100,000 per patient, but he said that cost should decrease as the therapy advances.