Revolutionary cancer breakthrough: Pioneering treatment halts disease in 94% of terminal patients in trial
Doctors battling to combat cancer have hailed a revolutionary treatment that teaches the body how to kill the disease itself.
Trials of immunotherapy showed remarkable results with 94% of terminal leukaemiapatients told they had just months to live going into remission.
And more than half of 40 suffering other blood cancers were left disease-free, according to US researchers.
The treatment could reduce the reliance on chemotherapy, which has debilitating toxic side-effects.
In a second major breakthrough, an Italian study found the therapy could be used to develop a vaccine-style drug that stops the disease coming back after it has been successfully treated.
In the US trial, white blood cells – known as T-cells – were taken from patients suffering acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and genetically modified to target the cancer.
They were then injected back into the body – and specialists were amazed at the results.
Trial chief Professor Stanley Riddell, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, Washington, said: “This is extraordinary. It is unprecedented in medicine to be honest to get response rates in this range in these very advanced patients.
“These are in patients that have failed everything. Most would be projected to have two to five months to live. This is potentially paradigm-shifting in terms of how we treat them.
“I think immunotherapy has finally made it to a pillar of cancer therapy.”
Cancer is not recognised by the body’s natural defence systems so T-cells are assigned the task of fighting it. But they are not very effective. By genetically modifying them in a laboratory, they can be much improved in their role.
The breakthrough was announced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Washington DC.
The other major advance involving T-cells was revealed at the meeting. Italian experts revealed they had discovered memory T-cells can stay in the body for at least 14 years.
This means they could also be trained to fight cancer, then remember the disease if it came back and beat it again. The findings could pave the way for a vaccine against the disease and spell a permanent cure.
So far, Prof Riddell’s technique has only been tried on patients with “liquid” blood cancers. But his team are understood to be working on using T-cell technology on solid tumours.
Professor Chiara Bonini, of the University of Milan, said the treatment would work in the same way other vaccines such as flu.
The haematologist added: “This really is a revolution. I think we’re at the beginning of a road and this means that the products will be available very soon. T-cells are a living drug, and they have the potential to persist in our body for our whole lives.
“Imagine when you are given a vaccine as a kid and you are protected against flu or whatever for all of your life. Why is that? When a T-cell encounters the antigen and gets activated, it kills the pathogen but also persist as a memory cell.
“So if the same strain of flu comes back 10 years later then you have T-cells that remember it and kill it so quickly you don’t even know you’re infected.
“Imagine translating this to cancer immunotherapy, to have memory T cells that remember the cancer and are ready for when it comes back.”
Prof Bonini carried out a trial in Milan with 10 patients who had bone marrow transplants and infusions of T-cells.
They tracked the cells for between two and 14 years and, in a world first, found low but stable levels were still in the blood at the end of the study.
British experts hailed the findings from both trials. Manchester University immunologist Professor Daniel Davis said: “Immunotherapy has great potential to revolutionise cancer treatments. This research area is hot, no doubt about it.”
Cancer Research UK’s Dr Kat Arney called the results “exciting” but warned: “The treatment comes with a risk of potentially severe side effects, and doesn’t yet work for all patients.
“We still need more trials to know for sure how well they work and whether they can be used in other cancers too. But there’s hope that this type of therapy could save lives.”
Prof Riddell’s trial took place over two years. Patients have had at least 18 months remission – but seven people had an over-powerful immune system response from which two died.