Saturday science subject: Curing cancer

The New Scientist reports that a team at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle has successfully cured a man with metastasized skin cancer. Rather than use conventional techniques, the team injected the patient with "billions" of a certain variety of his own T-cells. The New Scientist explains:

For a tumour to grow and spread, it must trick the immune system into thinking it is normal tissue. Immune cells that keep tumours in check remain oblivious to the malignancy or too low in number to make much of a difference.

But researchers have slowly learned how to unleash this response. The most common strategy is to collect a patient’s white blood cells, grow the tumour-killing T-cells in a laboratory incubator and inject them back into the patient. . . . This approach, while sometimes successful, often requires doctors to kill off a patient’s other T-cells and give them multiple cell treatments, as well as a toxic cocktail of immune chemicals.

In hopes of developing a simple regimen, Yee’s team focused on a special kind of T-cell, called helper CD4 cells. . . . The researchers isolated a handful of these cells from the patient, whose melanoma had spread to his lung and groin. All the cells recognised a protein called NY-ESO-1 – this existed in his tumour, but not most healthy cells. . . . After the cells had been multiplying in the lab for two months, Yee’s team injected about five billion of them into the patient in one dose.

Cassian Yee, the immunologist who led the team, told the New Scientist his method "annihilated the tumours within two months." Calling the response "remarkable," Yee added that the cancer shows no signs of creeping back almost two years later.

Yee and his team used the same treatment on eight other patients with melanoma, but he says it's "too early to tell whether their tumours have vanished as well." Still, the New Scientist says other cancer experts think the technique may eventually pave the way for a cancer vaccine.

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