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Trials of a potentially ground-breaking therapy that retrains the body’s immune system to fight cancer has caused a stir after more than 90 percent of terminally ill patients reportedly went into remission.
The news broke last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Washington DC, at which the early data was described as “unprecedented.”
According to lead scientist Stanley Riddell of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, balancing different types of immune cells and equipping them with cancer-sensing molecules had saved the lives of leukaemia patients for whom all other treatments had failed.
Tests of the treatment, known as T-cell immunotherapy, had a success rate of 94 percent in patients given months to live, he said.
Four out of five patients with other blood cancers responded positively to the treatment and more than half ended up symptom-free, Sky News reported.
Professor Riddell’s team treated 26 patients whose acute lymphoblastic leukaemia was so advanced they had only two to five months to live. After 18 months, 24 of the patients were in complete remission.
“This is extraordinary. This is unprecedented in medicine to get response rates in this range from very advanced patients,” Riddell said.
Immune cells, or T-cells, were reportedly removed from patients and tagged with ”receptor” molecules – from specially bred genetically engineered mice – that target cancer.
Once the cells returned to the body were attached to the T-cells, they reduced the ability of the cancer to shield itself from the body’s immune system.
Professor Riddell said that the results were a ”potential paradigm shift” in cancer treatment.
He nevertheless noted that more work needed to be done and said it was still uncertain how long patients would remain in remission.
BBC News also indicated that the data has not been published or reviewed and two patients are said to have died from an extreme immune response.
Seven of the patients also developed cytokine release syndrome so severe that they required intensive care, according to the BBC.
There is also a big difference between using such approaches on a blood cancer like leukaemia and “solid” tumours such as breast cancer.
Dr Alan Worsley, from Cancer Research UK, told the BBC that while the field was incredibly exciting, “this is a baby step.”
“We’ve been working for a while using this type of technology, genetically engineering cells. So far it’s really shown some promise in this type of blood cancer,” he said.
“We should say that in most cases standard treatment for blood cancer is quite effective, so this is for those rare patients where that hasn’t worked.
“The real challenge now is how do we get this to work for other cancers, how do we get it to work for what’s known as solid cancers, cancers in the tissue?”