Leukemia Is Getting a New Enemy: Your Immune System


Leukemia and cancer overall may finally be seeing its last days as US researchers have successfully used genetically modified T-cells to combat the disease in 88% of volunteer patients in clinical trials. Using patients’ own immune systems, researchers have been able to successfully combat leukemia, specifically Adult B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL). An average of 1,400 patients die of the disease each year, many often from relapses after chemotherapy fails, while others develop resistances to conventional treatments.

This form of cancer is in the blood and bone marrow, and usually combated with multiple rounds of chemotherapy. However, relapse is common, at which time most chemotherapy treatments are nullified by the human body’s newly developed resistance to the therapies, leading toward the usual need for a bone marrow transplant, if the patient responds to some of the secondary or tertiary chemo treatments prior to the transplant procedure.

LeukemiaThe new experimental treatment functions by manipulating a patient’s own T-cells, using gene therapy, to identify and attack the specific cancer cells’ CD19 proteins. CD19 (Cluster of Differentiation -19) are found on the surface of B-cells. Our immune system’s lymphocytes will usually gather together in the presence of various types of antigens and take action. However, while our body can identify and attack various diseases, cancer runs rampant as our immune function normally never identifies these leukemic cells containing the CD19 protein receptors. In this application, our T-cells proliferate and attack the B-ALL leukemia cells, preventing tumors from forming or obliterating the ones that already exist. The benefits of this research have identified a far larger percentage of the volunteers utilized in the clinical trials from this form of treatment over traditional chemotherapy. The ‘Living Drug’ has fought the leukemia in 88% of the adults in the clinical trials as stated by US researchers, and Science Magazine is calling the drug the breakthrough of 2013.

The average age of the patients in the most recent clinical trials were in their 50s and most were in the end stages of their fight against leukemia.  Researchers stated that 14 out of 16 of these patients were diagnosed with complete remission after treatment, most of whom were no longer responding to any form of chemotherapy. The percentage of survival among those in the clinical trials would have only been 30% benefiting from salvage chemotherapy, a procedure that helps save only those few after treatments fail.

Renier J. Brentjens, MD, PhD, the director of cellular therapeutics at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, has stated, “The longest remission among them so far is about two years, and that patient is still going strong.” Dr. Brentjens has stated that other research centers throughout the United States and abroad are also showing similar results, “demonstrating that this isn’t a fluke.” in Brentjens’ own words.

The findings were reported February 19th, in the journal Science Translational Medicine which reported on results from the first five treated patients. The T-Cell therapy is yet to be vetted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and is only available in clinical trials, with doctors cautioning that there is still a long time to go before this treatment becomes available to the public.

It definitely does look like leukemia has gained a new enemy out of our immune system; for now, commentary like “phenomenon” and “paradigm shift” are being used to describe the breakthrough in T-cell immunotherapy function utilizing gene therapy to eventually combat all forms of leukemia and all other cancers.

By Emanuel F. Camacho


The Almagest


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