Treating Desperate Leukemia

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As many as 3,500 American children are diagnosed with leukemia each year. It is one of the most prevalent forms of childhood cancer, responsible for one in four diagnoses among children. Another 40,000 cases are diagnosed each year in adults. People with leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells sometimes experience seizures and vomiting; other symptoms include painless swollen lymph nodes, bleeding or bruising easily, joint pain, unexplained rapid weight loss, weakness, fatigue, and night sweats.

Current treatments use chemotherapy and anti-cancer drugs. Stem cell therapy has begun to see limited use in recent years, using either donor cells or the patient’s own stored stem cells to create healthy bone marrow. Now a trial treatment is using immune cells to help create individualized therapy that harnesses the full power of the patient’s immune system to vanquish cancer cells. The trial achieved significant success against a particular form of leukemia called acute lymphoblastic leukemia in both children and adults.

"Our results serve as another important milestone in demonstrating the potential of this cell therapy for patients who have no other therapeutic options," said Dr. Stephan A. Grupp, a pediatric oncologist who was one of the doctors leading the study, in a statement. "We are also very excited that this approach has worked and been safe in patients who have relapsed after a bone marrow transplant."

In the treatment, doctors take immune cells called T cells out of the patient’s body and process them. They use these extracted T cells as the basis for cells that are specifically crafted to fight the patient’s cancer cells. The altered immune cells then persist, ready to attack the cancer again if it comes back. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia responds well to drug treatment, but has a tendency to recur, and these relapses typically to not respond to most treatments.

This experimental leukemia treatment uses a surprising medium to deliver the modified cancer-fighting immune cells: HIV. However, because HIV is one of the best-understood of all viruses, it’s possible for doctors to take out the portions that allow it to be infectious, to spread, or to cause disease, leaving only the harmless shell of the virus to enable doctors to upgrade the immune cells.

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