Cancer: Binding the monster

T-cells binding to beadsWith the occasional exception of wars and disasters, most big, exciting headlines eventually prove disappointing. This is, of course, because readers grant the headline or lede too much credit and, when the detail mitigates the happy rush, well, we are disappointed.

Bearing that in mind, the browser title reads, “Clinical trial raises hope for cancer treatment”, which is certainly good news. The headline, however, for Eryn Brown’s Los Angeles Times story is a bit more demanding: “‘Huge’ results raise hope for cancer breakthrough“.

Even accounting for the expected disappointment, it’s still really good news:

In a potential breakthrough in cancer research, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have genetically engineered patients’ T cells—a type of white blood cell—to attack cancer cells in advanced cases of a common type of leukemia.

Two of the three patients who received doses of the designer T cells in a clinical trial have remained cancer-free for more than a year, the researchers said.

Experts not connected with the trial said the feat was important because it suggested that T cells could be tweaked to kill a range of cancers, including ones of the blood, breast and colon.

“This is a huge accomplishment—huge,” said Dr. Lee M. Nadler, dean for clinical and translational research at Harvard Medical School, who discovered the molecule on cancer cells that the Pennsylvania team’s engineered T cells target.

Findings of the trial were reported Wednesday in two journals.

Dr. Lee Nadler is the one who attached the word “huge”. The Harvard medical school dean for clinical and translational research said, “This is a huge accomplishment — huge”. For his own part, Nadler helped identify a target for the modified T cells.

To build the cancer-attacking cells, the researchers modified a virus to carry instructions for making a molecule that binds with leukemia cells and directs T cells to kill them. Then they drew blood from three patients who suffered from chronic lymphocytic leukemia and infected their T cells with the virus.

When they infused the blood back into the patients, the engineered T cells successfully eradicated cancer cells, multiplied to more than 1,000 times in number and survived for months. They even produced dormant “memory” T cells that might spring back to life if the cancer was to return.

On average, the team calculated, each engineered T cell eradicated at least 1,000 cancer cells.

Side effects included loss of normal B cells, another type of white blood cell, which are also attacked by the modified T cells, and tumor lysis syndrome, a complication caused by the breakdown of cancer cells.

“We knew [the therapy] could be very potent,” said Dr. David Porter, director of the blood and marrow transplantation program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a coauthor of both papers, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine. “But I don’t think we expected it to be this dramatic on this go-around.”

The last few weeks have seen exciting scientific announcements, with NASA seeming to rub Congress’ nose in proposed budget cuts. While seasonal flows on Mars, or ninety months and twenty miles from the Martian rover, shooting probes at comets or asteroids—Correct, Senator, we lobbed a robot at a rock, piloted through the asteroid belt, and dropped it into orbit, and when it’s done it will kick away and do it all over again with another rock—is certainly cool and nifty, and all. But this news is much more immediately relevant to life and living.

Dare we hope that we are verging on the edge of an era? For many, the question is whether we are tiptoeing along the threshold ‘twixt life and death.

One thought on “Cancer: Binding the monster

  1. I think this cancer treatment is a great breakthrough, but what about the death of the B-cells as a side effect? They are the cells that produce antibodies. That’s probably going to affect the body’s response to future infections, especially if these killer T-cells are always going to be around.

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