"The early data is unprecedented." That's how the lead researcher described a new cancer treatment that could potentially wipe out cancer as we know it.
That quote by the BBC is the voice of professor Stanley Riddell from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Riddell is also the lead researcher for a new cancer treatment that uses the body's own immune system to find and fight off cancer cells.
Riddell was speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. He described his latest research, which has not yet been published or reviewed. But if his work can be replicated and verified, it may be a game changer for cancer treatment.
For the trial, Riddell and his colleagues recruited terminally-ill cancer patients who had exhausted all other treatment options and had been given only a few months to live. Specific cells from the patients' immune systems, also called killer T-cells or cytotoxic T cells, were removed from the blood stream, genetically altered, and infused back into the patients. The killer T-cells were programmed to seek out and destroy cancer cells.
Normally, cancer cells have a unique ability to hide from the body's immune system, which is what allows them to wreak such havoc. But by reprogramming the T-cells, the body's immune system was able to pinpoint and destroy the errant cells.
More than 90 percent of the 35 patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia who participated in Riddell's trial went into complete remission after the treatment.
Cancer experts find the new trial data exciting, but also add that it's only a baby step in understanding how to effectively utilize this type of treatment to cure cancer.
For starters, all of the patients recruited for this trial had leukemia, a type of blood cancer that is very different from what doctors call "solid cancers" such as those that form tumors in the tissues like breast cancer or prostate cancer. Could killer T-cells be reprogrammed to seek out and destroy cancerous tumors? It's too soon to tell.
Researchers also note that all of the patients in this study were at the end of the line when it came to treatment options. While 90 percent recovered, 10 percent suffered severe reactions that landed them in the intensive care unit and two patients died from the treatment. These risks are greater than those that accompany the traditional leukemia treatments of chemotherapy and radiation, treatment options that work well for a large percentage of patients.
In his presentation at the AAAS meeting, Riddell noted that much more work needs to be done in this area before this type of treatment can be used on the average cancer patient. He also noted that it is unclear how long the patients in his study would remain in remission.
However, he added that this work could be a "paradigm shift" for the future of cancer treatment — and that's incredibly exciting.