Researchers at University of Pennsylvania have come up with a technique to treat leukemia, a cancer that affects blood cells, with genetically engineered cells and have seen drastic results in patients. The experimental treatment technique has been successful in treating nine out of twelve leukemia patients. Last year, the team tried the treatment on 7 year-old Emma Whitehead. Whitehead is now free of cancer, but that wasn’t always the case.
It’s hard to believe that last year, doctors had given up on Whitehead. The 7-yaer old had acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2010 and relapsed two times after chemotherapy, like the other patients who entered, the experimental treatment was her last resort.
Leukemia mostly occurs in a particular form of white blood cells called B-cells. The B-cells are an important part of a healthy immune system, they make antibodies to find and fight infection. Leukemia causes B-cells to grow out of control, failing to fight off infections, causes anemia, swollen lymph nodes, and tumors.
The treatment calls upon another type of white blood cells called T-cells. Using a disabled version of the HIV virus, the T-cells are genetically engineered to seek out and destroy B-cells. These T-cells remain in patient’s blood and fight of the cancer for a lengthy period of time, thus keep the patients from relapsing. However, it’s not all roses and butterflies, the treatment can be hard on the patients; as the cancerous cells in Whitehead’s body were destroyed, she suffered a condition the researchers call ‘cytokine-release-syndrome’ an intense series of flu and fever symptoms that almost cost Whitehead her life. The genetically engineered T-cells target both healthy and malignant B-cells, thus weakening the immune system; Whitehead and other successfully treated patients, who are now cancer free, need immunoreplacement therapy on a regular basis to keep them healthy.
The team’s effort and success has got them funding from Novartis to build a research centre and hope of bringing the treatment to the public. The research is still in its early stages, and every patient requires a specialised form of the treatment. It’s going to be a long time before the treatment is commercially available. But researchers and drug companies hope that this is the first step towards curing leukemia and other forms of cancer.
The experimental treatment brings hope to all who are fighting this terrible disease. Do you know someone who is suffering from this condition? Do you think we need to fund more cancer research? Let us know in the comments.