By JAKE ELLISON
Posted: Dec. 13th, 2012
A cancer treatment that uses the body’s immune system and that some doctors believe just might cure a form of childhood leukemia will get underway at Seattle Children’s Hospital Thursday. The first step will be enrolling qualified patients.
And though the clinical trial at Children’s has been years in the making, results from the same treatment in Philadelphia were presented over the weekend and were hailed as a “major breakthrough” that may revolutionize the treatment of leukemia and related blood cancers.
Children’s will be the only hospital west of the Rocky Mountains and one of five in the nation to try the treatment, said Dr. Rebecca Gardner, the trial’s principal investigator.
Gardner said she’s looking forward to starting the trial with “pure enthusiasm” because this treatment holds the promise to be a “cure” for a form of acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common form of cancer in children.
“Personally, I do feel that this is a very promising therapy,” Gardner said. “But we have to have a little bit of restraint because the results out there are very preliminary… but there is a lot of excitement in the field.”
One aspect of the trial that’s catching attention is the use of a disabled form of the human immunodeficiency virus (or HIV) to deliver the gene to T-cells, key cells in the body’s immune system that will then hunt down and kill the cancer cells.
The researchers at Children’s and other hospitals use this virus, Gardner explained, because it is good at getting into cells and inserting the new gene.
The treatment is called cellular immunotherapy and involves drawing blood from the patient, reprogramming their infection-fighting T-cells to find and destroy cancer cells, and infusing the blood back into the patient’s body. Once the T-cells learn to attack the cancer, they will continue to do so, much the same way the immune system continues to beat back other viruses once exposed to them.
It is a “boutique” treatment that, so far, has to be done where the patient is and that’s why Children’s is one of the few hospitals able to conduct the trial.
“Children’s is the only pediatric center west of the Rocky Mountains to have this capability, and we are unique compared with trial centers across the country because we have our own manufacturing facility on site that will prepare the immunotherapy treatment,” the hospital explained in a press release.
Tough on the patient
According to a http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/10/health/a-breakthrough-against-leukemia-using-altered-t-cells.html?ref=health&_r=0″ target=”_blank”>story in The New York Times about the treatment and results of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s trial, the treatment can be hard on patients.
“A sign that the treatment is working is that the patient becomes terribly ill, with raging fevers and chills — a reaction that oncologists call ‘shake and bake’ … Its medical name is cytokine-release syndrome, or cytokine storm, referring to the natural chemicals that pour out of cells in the immune system as they are being activated, causing fevers and other symptoms. The storm can also flood the lungs and cause perilous drops in blood pressure.”
Nevertheless, bone marrow transplants, the last hope when other treatments fail, is “an even more arduous, risky and expensive procedure,” the Times reported.
Children’s will officially announce the study at a Thursday morning press conference, which will include an interview with a founder of the Ben Towne Foundation. That organization has provided major support for the trial.