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New leukemia study making waves

You've probably already heard about the big news in the cancer world: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used gene therapy to successfully treat three patients with chronic lymphoblastic leukemia. As described by Robert Bazell at

In the Penn experiment, the researchers removed certain types of white blood cells that the body uses to fight disease from the patients. Using a modified, harmless version of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, they inserted a series of genes into the white blood cells. These were designed to make to cells target and kill the cancer cells. After growing a large batch of the genetically engineered white blood cells, the doctors injected them back into the patients.

Two of the three patients are cancer-free one year after their treatment; the amount of cancer cells in the third patient diminished significantly. Bazell quotes Stanford immunologist Edgar Engleman, MD, as saying the results were "remarkable."

Stanford oncologist and cancer vaccine specialist Ronald Levy, MD, agrees that the research showcases an exciting way to harness the power of the immune cells to fight cancers. In fact, many groups around the world are working on variations of the technique, he told me. In particular, Stanford is currently conducting a clinical trial in patients with lymphoma that may be even more amenable for wide-spread use:

Rather than using gene therapy - which requires the efficient expression of a foreign gene designed in the laboratory - to get the T cell to attack and kill tumor cells, we vaccinate the patient with proteins expressed on the surface of their lymphoma cells. We then remove and isolate the resulting T cells, which have been naturally primed to attack the tumor. These cells are then returned to the patient after radiation treatment, where they proliferate and kill tumor cells. This may be a much more practical way to generate cancer-specific T cells.

I've written before about Levy's work to recruit the immune system to fight lymphoma. It's exciting to realize that these methods are one step closer to helping patients with cancer.

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