Heidi Ledford in Nature:
When immunologist Michel Sadelain launched his first trial of genetically engineered, cancer-fighting T cells in 2007, he struggled to find patients willing to participate. Studies in mice suggested that the approach — isolating and engineering some of a patient’s T cells to recognize cancer and then injecting them back — could work. But Sadelain did not blame colleagues for refusing to refer patients. “It does sound like science fiction,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about this for 25 years, and I still say to myself, ‘What a crazy idea’.” Since then, early results from Sadelain’s and other groups have shown that his ‘crazy idea’ can wipe out all signs of leukaemia in some patients for whom conventional treatment has failed. And today, his group at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City struggles to accommodate the many people who ask to be included in trials of the therapy, known as adoptive T-cell transfer.
At the American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting held in San Francisco, California, on 6–9 December, attendees heard dozens of talks and poster presentations on the promise of engineered T cells — commonly called CAR (chimaeric antigen receptor) T cells — for treating leukaemias and lymphomas. The field has been marred by concerns over safety, the difficulties of manufacturing personalized T-cell therapies on a large scale, and how regulators will view the unusual and complicated treatment. But those fears have been quelled for some former sceptics by data showing years of survival in patients who once had just months to live.