Cell therapy shows promise for acute leukaemia

A new type of ‘living drug’ has produced encouraging remission results in adults with aggressive leukaemia

A new treatment that genetically alters immune cells to fight cancer has produced remission in adults with acute leukaemia.

T-cell therapy, devised by Dr Renier J. Brentjens and his colleague Dr Michel Sadelain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York, has been used for the first time with five adults suffering acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. The technique has been used successfully with children, but this type of cancer is more aggressive in adults, with a recovery rate of approximately 40% compared to 80-90% in young people.

The technique uses a patient’s T-cells – white blood cells that the body uses to fight cancers – to genetically engineer a new material that recognises cells carrying CD19, which is then reprogrammed to produce antibodies within the immune system.

David Aponte, 58, a sound engineer for ABC News, was diagnosed with the disease in 2011, and despite chemotherapy it returned in 2012. His oncologist, Dr Brentjens, suggested he join the T-cell study. After several days of treatment, Mr Aponte’s temperature rose to 105°F and he entered a ‘cytokine storm’, where his T-cells battled the cancer by producing the hormone cytokine. After eight days in intensive care, Mr Aponte’s leukaemia had gone, and he is still in remission today.

“We’re creating living drugs,” Dr Sadelain told The New York Times. “It’s an exciting story that’s just beginning.”