Can Gene Therapy Cure Cancer?

  • By Michael Rivera
  • Posted 07.25.18
  • NOVA

CAR-T gene therapy is a new treatment recently approved for use by the FDA for some forms of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Dimas Padilla—a stage 4 cancer patient—joined one of the first clinical trials at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. For some, including Dimas, results have been promising, though long-term remission rates are not yet known.

Running Time: 03:23


Can Gene Therapy Cure Cancer?

Published July 25, 2018

Onscreen: Can gene therapy cure cancer? Dimas Padilla was 37 years old and a father of two girls when he got sick.

Dimas Padilla: Everything started in July 2011. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and I was in stage four when they found out.

Onscreen: Dimas received chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. But his tumors kept returning.

I started getting a lot of tumors around my neck to the point that it pressed my vocal cords. I lost my voice. I wasn’t feeling good…

…and and they told me Dimas, I don’t have good news. The chemo is no longer, is not working. Your tumors are keep growing so at this point pretty much there’s not much we can do.

Onscreen: But there was one opening left in a clinical trial of an experimental gene therapy called CAR-T.

Frederick Locke: So these patients are without other hope. Their life expectancy is, is a matter of months.

When I first saw Dimas his lymph nodes were growing rapidly despite all the available standard treatment options. So yeah, he was in bad shape.

Onscreen: Dimas entered the trial. First, immune cells called T-cells were harvested from his blood. Then researchers used a disabled virus to insert a new gene into those T-cells. Dimas received millions of these engineered cells, called CAR-T cells.

Locke: The “CAR” is simply a GPS navigation on the front of that T-cell so it knows where to go and to get to its target.

100 kilogram man would get 200 million CAR T-cells infused in him.

Onscreen: The new genes helps the T-cells recognize cancer cells and destroy them.

Padilla: Think about like an army of soldiers. And once they see or they feel the cancer cells, they destroy it. But what happen is in your blood, so then you get toxicity…and because it stays in your blood that’s why out get those high fevers. I’m talking about 104, 105 degrees.

Onscreen: Some patients do not survive. But Dimas did.

There is this phrase that I always keep in my mind which is never broken because I didn’t want the cancer to break me.

Onscreen: It's too soon to predict how long Dimas, or any other cancer patients, might remain cancer free. But results so far are encouraging enough that the FDA has approved CAR-T therapy for some kinds of leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.



Digital Producer
Michael Rivera
Produced, and Directed by
Larry Klein
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018

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