Immunotherapy holds promise of turning blood into cancer drugs

Posted on Sep 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

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Ken Shefveland’s body was swollen with cancer, treatment after treatment failing until doctors gambled on a radical approach: They removed some of his immune cells, engineered them into cancer assassins and unleashed them into his bloodstream.

Immune therapy is the hottest trend in cancer care and this is its next frontier — creating “living drugs” that grow inside the body into an army that seeks and destroys tumors.

Looking in the mirror, Shefveland saw “the cancer was just melting away.” A month later doctors at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center couldn’t find any signs of lymphoma in the Vancouver, Washington, man’s body.

“Today I find out I’m in full remission — how wonderful is that?” said Shefveland with a wide grin, giving his physician a quick embrace.

This experimental therapy marks an entirely new way to treat cancer — if scientists can make it work, safely. Early-stage studies are stirring hope as one-time infusions of supercharged immune cells help a remarkable number of patients with intractable leukemia or lymphoma.

“It shows the unbelievable power of your immune system,” said Dr. David Maloney, Fred Hutch’s medical director for cellular immunotherapy who treated Shefveland with a type called CAR-T cells.

“We’re talking, really, patients who have no other options, and we’re seeing tumors and leukemias disappear over weeks,” added immunotherapy scientific director Dr. Stanley Riddell. But, “there’s still lots to learn.”

T cells are key immune system soldiers. But cancer can be hard for them to spot, and can put the brakes on an immune attack.

“One of the biggest challenges in fighting cancer has been that cancer cells find ways of becoming invisible to the body’s defenses. And the immune system can’t kill what it can’t see,” CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook explained during a recent “CBS Sunday Morning” special broadcast, “Beyond Cancer.”

Today’s popular immunotherapy drugs called “checkpoint inhibitors” release one brake so nearby T cells can strike. The new cellular immunotherapy approach aims to be more potent: Give patients stronger T cells to begin with.

Currently available only in studies at major cancer centers, the first CAR-T cell therapies for a few blood cancers could hit the market later this year. The Food and Drug Administration is evaluating one version developed by the University of Pennsylvania and licensed to Novartis, and another created by the National Cancer Institute and licensed to Kite Pharma.

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