The new study used a relatively new approach in cancer treatment called immunotherapy, which uses the patients own T cells or those implanted from donor umbilical cord stem cells to manipulate the immune system, thereby increasing its cancer-fighting capabilities.
Researchers engineered the T cells to selectively kill another type of immune cell called B cells, which had become cancerous.
Grupp and his colleagues builds on knowledge from his ongoing collaboration with Penn Medicine scientists who originally developed the modified T cells as a treatment for B cell leukemias.
The Penn team reported on early successful results of a trial using this cell therapy in three adult chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients in August of 2011.
Two of those patients remain in remission more than 2½ years following their treatment, and as the Penn researchers reported in December, 2012 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology, 7 out of 10 adult patients treated at that point responded to the therapy.
"We're hopeful that our efforts to treat patients with these personalized cellular therapies will reduce or even replace the need for bone marrow transplants, which carry a high mortality risk and require long hospitalizations," said Carl H. June, M.D, who led the Penn team and is the new study’s senior author.
"In the long run, if the treatment is effective in these late-stage patients, we would like to explore using it up front, and perhaps arrive at a point where leukemia can be treated without chemotherapy," he added.
Grupp is the director of Translational Research for the Center for Childhood Cancer Research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and a professor of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In a statement he said that the initial results with this immune-based approach are encouraging, and may later even be developed into treatments for other types of cancer.