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Resource guide: Penn researchers use body’s immune system to target leukemia

BY   March 17, 2015 at 4:18 PM EDT
University of Pennsylvania scientists working in a lab to modify Tcells. Photo by  Penn Medicine

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are researching a promising therapy in which the body’s immune system is turned into a cancer-fighting weapon. Photo by Penn Medicine

A group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine has developed a way to modify the human body’s immune system, using a deactivated HIV virus, to recognize and kill leukemia cells.

Other institutions are also researching this form of treatment, known as immunotherapy, but the results at Penn, led by Dr. Carl June, have been so promising that the drug company Novartis has entered into a commercial partnership with the school, and the Food and Drug Administration has granted “breakthrough” status to the treatment to speed their review.

Last December, June and his colleagues updated the results of their trial: Of the nearly 100 adult and pediatric patients who have undergone the treatment, about 70 percent responded, meaning their tumors shrunk or disappeared. The research team is still trying to determine how long patients will remain in remission, but several adult patients are cancer free three or four years after their treatment. And the first pediatric patient, Emily Whitehead, is still in remission two years after she received the treatment.

On tonight’s PBS NewsHour, special correspondent Jackie Judd and I explore the promising new cancer research underway at the University of Pennsylvania. During our interview with Dr. June, he talked about his reaction when he saw the results from the first trial patient:

“I got an email from our physician that the leukemia biopsy came back with no more leukemia. My actual response to him was, I don’t believe it. So they went and three days later repeated this, and then got the same answer, there was no leukemia.”

The team at Penn is cautiously optimistic about their results. They stress the treatments have only been tried on a small number of patients, and there is much they are still trying to understand, including how to treat the severe flu-like symptoms that patients often get when the treatment is working and their immune system begins to fight the cancer.

“We need to be careful not to go and raise expectations prematurely,” said June, “but I think the field now believes that we’re on the verge where this can happen.”

You can learn more about the clinical trials underway at Penn on leukemia and other cancers by visiting their website:

Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania

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