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Experimental Therapy Could Treat Adult Leukemia

Update Date: Feb 20, 2014 11:46 AM EST

Researchers developed an experimental therapy that uses a patient' own immune system to treat a type of adult leukemia that has poor survival rates after recurrence. The therapy involved taking the patients' immune system cells and tweaking it to treat advanced B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). So far, the therapy proved to be quite effective.

For this study, the researchers recruited 16 patients diagnosed with ALL with a median age of 50. After genetically changing the patient's immune system cells and using these cells to treat their leukemia, 88 percent of them went into remission. This type of therapy is known as T-cell therapy and is currently only allowed to be used in a research setting. The study's findings add on to previous research conducted on this type of therapy last spring. During that time, the treatment was used on five patients.

"First and foremost, we've shown that this isn't a fluke. This is a reliable result," said study senior author Dr. Renier Brentjens, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City reported by Philly. "We're still very much in the early stages of development. This is potentially the first promising new therapy [for advanced B-cell ALL] in a long time."

In T-cell therapy, the researchers experimented with the T-cells collected from the blood samples of the patients. The T-cells were genetically altered so that the cells can activate a type of receptor that is capable of identifying and destroying cancer cells. For this small drug trial, all 16 patients underwent T-cell therapy after going through standard chemotherapy. 14 of them went into remission and seven of the 14 were able to undergo a bone marrow transplant. The researchers reported that the patients who could not have a transplant were either not in remission or had other medical conditions.

"Basically, what we do is re-educate the T cell in the laboratory with gene therapy to recognize and now kill tumor cells," Brentjens said according to the AFP.

Roughly 1,400 Americans die from ALL within the United States every year. ALL is typically treated with three separate courses of chemotherapy that is usually effective for the majority of the patients. However, this type of leukemia has a tendency to return and once it does, the cancer is more resistant to chemotherapy. By then, patients typically respond well to another round of chemotherapy or they have to wait for a bone marrow transplant.

Even though the treatment is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the researchers estimated that the therapy currently costs $100,000 per patient. They believe that this price will fall after pharmaceutical companies get involved. The study was published in Science Translational Medicine.

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