‘Serial killer’ cell hope for cancer patients

SCIENTISTS in America have developed a gene therapy which makes the body create “serial killer” cells that target cancer cells.

The therapy, which has been tested on advanced leukaemia cases, turned the patients’ own blood cells into assassins that hunted and destroyed the cancer.

The therapy has only been carried out on three patients but the results are striking.

Two appear cancer-free up to a year after treatment, and the third patient is improved but has some cancer.

In Ireland there are approximately 250 cases of leukaemia each year.

Scientists are already preparing to try the same gene therapy technique for other kinds of cancer.

“It worked great. We were surprised it worked as well as it did,” said Dr Carl June, a gene therapy expert at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’re just a year out now. We need to find out how long these remissions last.”

He led the study, published by the New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine.

It involved three men with very advanced cases of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, or CLL. Their only hope for a cure had been bone marrow or stem cell transplants, which don’t always work and carry a high risk of death.

Scientists have been working for years to find ways to boost the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. Earlier attempts at genetically modifying bloodstream soldiers called T-cells have had limited success; the modified cells didn’t reproduce well and disappeared.

Dr June and his colleagues made changes using a novel carrier to deliver the new genes into the T-cells and a signalling mechanism telling the cells to kill and multiply.

That resulted in armies of “serial killer” cells that targeted cancer cells, destroyed them, and went on to kill new cancer as it emerged. It was known that T-cells attack viruses that way, but this is the first time it’s been done against cancer, Dr June said.

For the experiment, blood was taken from each patient and T-cells removed. After they were altered in a lab, millions of the cells were returned to the patient in three infusions.

The researchers described the experience of one 64-year-old patient. There was no change for two weeks, but then he became ill with chills, nausea and fever. He and the other two patients were hit with a condition that occurs when a large number of cancer cells die at the same time — a sign that the gene therapy is working.

“It was like the worse flu of their life,” June said. “But after that, it’s over. They’re well.”

The complication seems to be that this technique also destroys some other infection-fighting cells; so far the patients have been getting monthly treatments for that.

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