A 20 year old man was diagnosed with cancer for the third time at the age of 20, suffering through years of punishing chemotherapy each time before.
At the third diagnosis this young man knew that it wasn’t good. Usually when leukemia comes back like this, it means that it is resistant to chemotherapy. Hardly anyone survives.
But in 2013 his lymphoblastic leukemia was destroyed with a new type of treatment in which cells from his immune system were removed from his blood. The cells were then genetically engineered to target his cancer and eventually dripped back into his veins.
Although this young man is only the second person at Seattle Children’s to receive the treatment, earlier results in Philadelphia and New York had been close to miraculous. In 90% of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia that has returned and resists regular drugs, the cancer goes away.
The change of achieving remission in these circumstances is generally less than 10%.
Blood cell therapies are the most radical of several new approaches that recruit the immune system to attack cancers. Immunotherapy has roared back with stunning results in the last four years.
Newly marketed drugs called checkpoint inhibitors are curing a small percentage of skin and lung cancers, that were once hopeless causes.
To date, more than 60,000 patients have been treated with these drugs. The treatments work by removing molecular brakes that normally keep the body’s blood cells from seeing cancer as an enemy and have helped demonstrate that the immune system is capable of destroying cancer.
Experts argue that medicine is currently entering a new phase in which cells will become living drugs. Evidence shows that some cancers could be treated with a few side effects other than a powerful fever.
Unfortunately, no one has ever manufactured a cellular treatment of any commercial consequence. It is not clear what the best way to make and deliver such personalized treatments would be.