Immunotherapy cancer trial cures 90% of participants

Fred Hutch News Service

An experimental immunotherapy cancer treatment has shown extraordinary results in two clinical trials.

In one trial, 35 participants had an advanced form of leukaemia known as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and had all been given between two and five months to live. After receiving the treatment, 90% of the patients are now symptom-free and in remission, Sky News reports.

The treatment has also shown significant results in patients with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. 

The research was led by Dr Stanley Riddell, an immunotherapy researcher and oncologist at Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre who has more than twenty years' experience.

While presenting at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Washington D.C on the 14th of February, Dr Riddell expressed his satisfaction with the results:

"This is extraordinary. This is unprecedented in medicine to be honest, to get response rates in this range in these very advanced patients."

How the treatment works

The field of immunotherapy aims to "supercharge" the body's own immune system, better enabling it to fight cancer.

T-cells are white blood cells that form part of the immune system, detecting and attacking abnormal or foreign cells in the body. In cancer patients, this T-cell attack is often inadequate and does not completely rid the body of the cancer.

The treatment used in the trials is a form of genetic engineering and involves reprogramming T-cells to specifically fight cancer cells. In a press release, The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research explains how it works:

"Adoptive T-cell transfer is an experimental immune-boosting process in which immune cells are engineered to recognise and attack the patient's cancer cells. Researchers extract T-cells from the blood and use gene transfer to introduce highly potent receptors that target the cancer cell. In less than two weeks, the new cells are infused into the patient where they can home to the tumour site and destroy the cancer cells."

An important step but further research needed

While the treatment showed a high success rate in most patients, two patients died as a result of an extreme immune response, BBC News reports.  A further seven patients were placed in intensive care after developing cytokine release syndrome. 

The trial, funded by Juno Therapeutics, was also relatively small with only 35 participants. The participants were in the advanced stages of the disease and all other treatment options had failed. Further research is needed to determine how effective it may be in patients in earlier stages of the disease.

Professor Michael Herbst, Head of Health for the Cancer Association of South Africa believes that immunotherapy may be the key to a cancer cure:

"Immunotherapy is definitely the 'it' for the future. I am convinced that we are still going to find the ‘miracle cure’ for cancer through immunotherapy. The developments in immunotherapy during the past 2 to 3 years have been giant leaps in science."

Read more:

T-cell therapy shows promise against leukaemia

SA doctor heads team to develop cancer vaccine

Immunotherapy promises turnaround in cancer treatment rates


BBC News (16 February 2016), Excitement at new cancer treatment, 

Sky News (16 February 2016),'Extraordinary' Cancer Breakthrough Revealed, 

EurekAlert (14 February 2016),Dr. Stan Riddell, an innovator in cancer immunotherapy at Fred Hutch, to present at AAAS annual meeting,

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