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Cancer Immunotherapy: Hot With Promise, Potential Breakthroughs

Dr. Carl June (Abramson Cancer Center)

Dr. Carl June (University of Pennsylvania)

If there’s a science equivalent to the Oscars, or People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, this might be it: last year Cancer Immunotherapy — a technique that harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer — was named Science magazine’s “breakthrough of the year.”

In bestowing the honor, Science Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt, whose own father died of lung cancer, wrote: “We believe that 2013 marks a significant moment in cancer history, and today’s achievements merit recognition and celebration, even if uncertainties remain.”

The idea of exploiting the body’s own immune system to battle cancer isn’t new. But what’s getting all the buzz lately is some promising new data.

In December, 2013, researchers led by Dr. Carl June, director of translational medicine of the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania, reported the results of a study testing immunotherapy on children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Of the 22 patients treated, 86 percent experienced complete remissions. And new research out of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center this week shows that the treatment also had an effect on 14 out of 16 adult patients with ALL.

(A bit about how it works: This type of treatment, known as T-cell immunotherapy, functions a little like a blood transfusion. After a patient gives blood, scientists isolate T-cells, a white blood cell that is part of the immune system. They genetically alter these cells in a laboratory — programming them to kill cancer cells — before they are reinfused into the patient. Dr. June calls these modified cells “serial killer” T-cells.)

Despite the excitement, it’s still too early to tell what the long-term effect of this type of therapy might be, or why it doesn’t work in some of the patients who were treated.

To find out more, I spoke with Dr. June, whose worked was featured at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago last week.

AM: Could you explain the concept of immunotherapy?

CJ: Immunotherapy is an approach that can be used for a number of diseases, from things like asthma and hay fever to cancer. In the case of cancer, where my laboratory has worked, there are a number of approaches to harness the immune system so that it can attack the cancer cells. In animal models, one can show that it can cure animals that have very advanced cancers. Continue reading