NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – Researchers have managed to tame pancreatic cancer in a woman whose cancer was far advanced and after other forms of treatment had failed.
The experiment that helped her is complex and highly personalised and is not immediately applicable to most cancer patients.
Another pancreatic cancer patient, who received the same treatment, did not respond and died of her disease.
Nonetheless, a leading journal – The New England Journal of Medicine – published a report of the study Wednesday (June 1).
Dr Eric Rubin, the journal’s editor-in-chief, called the proof of concept experiment “an important step along the way” to devising similar treatments that might be applicable to lung, colon and other cancers.
The experiment involved genetically reprogramming the patient’s T cells, a type of white blood cell of the immune system, so they can recognise and kill cancer cells. The technique was developed by Dr Eric Tran and Dr Rom Leidner of the Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, a division of Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, Oregon.
To turn a cancer patient’s T cells into a living drug, the researchers had to overcome serious challenges.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult to treat. While new treatments have allowed patients with other cancers to live longer and to have a better quality of life, pancreatic cancer has stubbornly resisted these advances. Fewer than 10 per cent of patients live past five years.
For most patients, said Dr William Jarnagin, a pancreatic cancer specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, who was not involved in the current experiment, the cancer has already spread by the time it is discovered.
Even when the tumours are caught in the pancreas and surgically removed, about 85 per cent of patients have recurrences.
“Our treatments are not doing the job,” Dr Jarnagin said.
The technique described in the new paper, “is not off-the-shelf,” Dr Tran said. He added that “it takes specialised facilities and expertise to manufacture the T cells.” But, Dr Leidner said, “the beauty of it” is that the reprogrammed T cells will only attack cancer cells. Other cells will be left alone.
The first problem in trying to entice T cells to kill cancer cells is that mutated proteins that drive the growth of cancer are hidden inside cells.