New Hope for a Cancer Cure

Penn researchers may have found a way to wipe out malignant tumors

Researchers at the Abramson Cancer Center and Perelman School of Medicine make a major breakthrough

In the latest breakthrough in the search for a cure for cancer, researchers at UPenn’s Abramson Cancer Center and Perelman School of Medicine have proven the success of so-called “gene transfer therapy.”

Three patients with advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia—a slow-progressing cancer of the bone and bone marrow—took part in the treatment trial, spearheaded by Drs. David Porter and Carl June. People with this form of cancer usually have very few treatment options and must resort to a bone-marrow transplant, a procedure that carries a 50-percent chance at a cure against a 20-percent mortality risk.

June and Porter went a different route. They removed some of the patients’ T cells, key disease-fighting players in the immune system, and encoded them with a protein that programs them to attack tumor cells. The genetically modified T cells were then reintroduced to the patients’ bodies after chemotherapy—and they delivered on their promise.

“Within three weeks, the tumors had been blown away, in a way that was much more violent than we ever expected,” said June in a statement.

Another key element of the treatment is that when a modified T cell binds to its enemy and starts killing the cancer cell, it releases a protein that signals other T cells to multiply, resulting in an exponentially expanding army. The speed of self-replication and force with which these little guys wipe out tumor cells have earned them the nickname “serial killer” T cells.

According to June, the modified T cells “destroyed at least two pounds of tumor in each patient” after just three weeks. The result? One 64-year-old patient seems to be completely cured, with no traces of leukemia found in his bone marrow. The other two saw extreme cancer regression, and all three are now in remission.

This new, much safer therapy has the potential to battle other forms of cancer as well, including lung and ovarian cancer, myeloma, and melanoma. However, more tests must be performed to ensure that this is the real deal and not another false lead.

Read more about this ground-breaking therapy here.