T-Cell Cancer Therapy Yields Extraordinary Results

Killer T-cells attack a cancer cell Credit: Alex Ritter, Jennifer Lippincott Schwartz and Gillian Griffiths, National Institutes of Health

Experimental trials involving engineered immune cells are demonstrating extremely encouraging results

In November a unique trial at Great Ormond Street hospital involving designer immune cells appeared to have phenomenal success in a young patient (read about it here). Now, new data is emerging from a number of experimental trials involving a similar procedure - and it's looking good. 

Unusually positive results

One study involving the T-cell modification strategy proved 94% effective in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, and highly effective in a number of other blood cancers too. 

“This is unprecedented in medicine, to be honest, to get response rates in this range in these very advanced patients”

What does the therapy involve?

T-cells, a specific type of immune cell, are extracted from a patient and genetically modified to display a 'cancer hunting' receptor on their surface. These receptors can be specifically designed for a particular cancer in certain cases, and act as a honing mechanism - drawing the killer cells to cancerous ones. 

 3-D rendering of a T-Cell Credit: Blausen.com

“There are reasons to be optimistic, there are reasons to be pessimistic. These are in patients that have failed everything. Most of the patients in our trial would be projected to have two to five months to live. T-cells are a living drug, and in particular they have the potential to persist in our body for our whole lives”

 

Hopeful, but not perfect

The therapy is displaying incredible results on specific blood cancers so far, but it's also dangerous and has so far only been used on patients with little to lose. These modified T-cells can trigger side effects like cytokine release syndrome which leads to fever and neurotoxicity. Indeed, 2 patients actually died from these complications although the co-coordinators did point out these were patients that all other treatment had already failed for. It is clear the strategy needs refining and safety improvements before it could enter widespread use, but considering the incredible success in particular patients and good remission rates it could be a game changing treatment for many desperate people. 

There is hope that this modification approach could also yield long term improvements in cancer resistance. In one study 94% of 35 patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia went into remission, and 50% of 40 patients withlymphoma also experienced remission. 

“Much like chemotherapy and radiotherapy, it’s not going to be a save-all. I think immunotherapy has finally made it to a pillar of cancer therapy”

Read more at The Guardian