Is it a “game-changing” moment for cancer?

Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon:

Immunology has traditionally been the redheaded stepchild of cancer research. Using the body’s own defenses to fight off tumors has long been considered a dubious proposition – too difficult to execute, too controversial because of the resources required to search for answers. The past few years, however, have brought real results that have translated into a variety of new approaches. The Gardasil vaccine is now routinely used on young men and women to prevent the HPV virus, which in turn can help prevent cervical cancer. Doctors at Roswell Park Cancer Center are now working on a cancer vaccine. And in 2011, the FDA approved Ipilimumab, a drug therapy for melanoma unlike any other that’s come before, one that works with the body’s immune system.

Five months after Ipilimumab went on the market, I was one of those patients who needed it. The malignant cancer that I had undergone surgery for a year before had returned with a vengeance, metastasized into my lungs and under my flesh. At Stage 4, I was facing a diagnosis that generally offers patients only a few months to live. I could do the math. I was looking at my birthday and Thanksgiving and Christmas but maybe not Easter. Summer was definitely a long shot. That’s when my oncologist recommended a clinical trial that was combining Ipilimumab with a new investigational drug. I jumped in as soon as possible, entering the first cohort of the first phase, a place in research where, as a doctor later admitted to me, “We usually expect a lot of losses.” Instead, three months later, I was cancer-free. Just like Emma Whitehead.

More here. And here is the story by Denise Grady in the New York Times:

Emma Whitehead has been bounding around the house lately, practicing somersaults and rugby-style tumbles that make her parents wince.

It is hard to believe, but last spring Emma, then 6, was near death from leukemia. She had relapsed twice afterchemotherapy, and doctors had run out of options.

Desperate to save her, her parents sought an experimental treatment at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, one that had never before been tried in a child, or in anyone with the type of leukemia Emma had. The experiment, in April, used a disabled form of the virus that causes AIDS to reprogram Emma’s immune system genetically to kill cancer cells.

The treatment very nearly killed her. But she emerged from it cancer-free, and about seven months later is still in complete remission. She is the first child and one of the first humans ever in whom new techniques have achieved a long-sought goal — giving a patient’s own immune system the lasting ability to fight cancer.

More here. And here is more by Andy Coghlan in New Scientist:

Augmented immune cells have made an impressive impact on the survival of people with leukaemia.

Thirteen people with a form of the cancer called multiple myeloma were treated with genetically engineered T-cells, and all improved. “The fact we got a response in all 13, you can't get better than that,” says James Noble, CEO of Adaptimmune in Abingdon, UK, which developed the treatment.

Cancers often develop because T-cells have lost their ability to target tumour cells, which they normally destroy. To retune that targeting, a team led byAaron Rapoport at the University of Maryland in Baltimore engineered T-cell genes that coded for a receptor on the cell's surface. They extracted T-cells from each person, then inserted the engineered genes into these cells and re-injected them.

The souped-up cells were better able to recognise proteins called NY-ESO-1 and LAGE-1, found on myeloma cells but not healthy ones. All 13 people also had the standard treatment for multiple myeloma, which boosts white blood cell count.

Three months after the injection, 10 of the 13 were in remission or very close to it – a 77 per cent response rate – and the others showed drastic reduction in their cancer. Standard treatment alone gives a response rate of between 33 and 69 per cent. The work was presented this week at the American Society of Hematology Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia.

More here. [Thanks to Margit Oberrauch.]