When you develop cancer, which is made up of groups of defective cells that your own body manufactured, your immune system has let you down. The way it is supposed to work is like one of those bug zappers some people still have on their porch on a summer night: the zapper (your immune system) spots a bug (a defective cell) and kills it. ZAP! But when someone develops cancer, like I did in 1996 with leukemia, for some reason the body’s “zapper” doesn’t see the defective cells multiplying and starting to crowd out healthy cells. That’s what cancer does. The cells multiply and they don’t die like normal cells. They keep growing and get in the way of the body working as it should.
But what if you could give your immune system a second chance? What if you could say to it, like training a blood hound, “Here’s the scent of the cancer cells. Now go get them!” Guess what? Cancer researchers are making real progress in doing just that. In the lab, they are creating designer cells from patients’ bodies and re-injecting them to get into the immune system to do the job that the body failed to do the first time around. And, according to an exciting article just published in The New England Journal of Medicine, it’s working! It’s a trial with only three patients and they had the same disease, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, that I was treated for years ago. In two patients the “gene therapy” seemed to kill all the cancer cells. In a third case it did almost as well.
Now researchers have to expand the clinical studies, learn how to do this even more safely and see how this approach can work for more cancers. But it is a big deal. That’s because the typical chemotherapy used is sort of a poison. It kills cancer cells pretty well but also damages healthy cells. But if your own immune system could just zap the bad guys, no matter where they are in your body, that would -- by far -- be best.
It will be years before we understand the full extent of yesterday’s news and how it applies to saving lives. But it is encouraging. Congratulations to Dr. Carl June from the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center.