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Excitement at success of new cancer T-cell treatment trials for Leukaemia

by Pavitra Sankaran

Cancer has always been an area of medicine that is ever-changing. As we begin to learn more about the disease and its effect on the human body, we innovate and continually attempt to ‘grab the bull by its horns’ through trialling new and innovative approaches to tackle each type of the disease.

Just recently, a new cancer treatment involving a patient’s own immune cells has proven to be highly successful in leukaemia patients, with 93% of tested patients in remission following the treatment.

Leukaemia is a cancer of blood-forming tissues and it usually starts in the bone marrow, where white blood cells are produced. These white blood cells are responsible for helping the body to fight infection. However when a cancer is present in the bone marrow, this results in an increased production of abnormal white blood cells, leading to an increased risk for developing infections.

In general, most leukaemia patients are treated with chemotherapy. Some patients also may have radiation therapy and/or bone marrow transplantation. These traditional approaches to the cancer tend to have psychological and physical effects that can be emotionally harrowing for the patients. Patients often experience hair loss, mouth sores, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhoea, increased risk of infections, easy bruising or bleeding and fatigue. The list of symptoms is so long that one can imagine how it must feel like to experience this cancer.

However, in the new treatment, the patient’s own immune cells are removed and genetically modified.

In the trials, “researchers removed killer T-cells from the immune system of patients”. These cells are normally responsible for destroying infected tissue. “These killer T-cells were then genetically modified to engineer a new targeting mechanism – with the technical name of chimeric antigen receptors (CARS) – to target acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.” The CARS molecules were taken from genetically engineered mice and incorporated into the T-cells, as “CARS molecules reduce the ability of the cancer to shield itself from the patient’s natural immune system, allowing the T-cells to attack the cancer.” As a result, the T-cells are reprogrammed to recognise and destroy the tumour cells within the patient.

The success of the treatment is shown by the outstanding results: “a single dose of this therapy put more than ninety percent of the patients into complete remission.” However, along with the success of the treatment, “seven of the patients developed severe cytokine release syndrome and two patients died in the process.” The treatment also involves greater side-effects than chemotherapy and radiotherapy, such as extreme cases of high fever and low blood pressure.

The T-cell treatment has been found to work best with blood cancers rather than tumours; however, doctors are hoping that eventually the treatment will be available as an option for patients with other types of cancers, especially solid tumours.

The treatment is a form of immunotherapy – harnessing the immune system to attack cancer – which is becoming increasingly relevant in the field of medicine. Through treatment trials similar to this one,  immunotherapy may soon join chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery as major weapons in the fight against cancer.

Some information adapted and quoted from:

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