By: Hannah Stoughton
Feb. 2nd, 2022: Cancer patients that have received an experimental gene therapy since 2010 call it a cure for their illness.
The University of Pennsylvania released a study in which 75-year-old Doug Olson and Bill Ludwig had their cancer “cured” by the experimental gene therapy CAR-T. CAR-T cell therapy works by attacking the cancer cell directly and remaining in the body for years, evolving to be able to fight new cancer cells that may grow.
The study was concluded in 2020, 10 years after it began. Based on results, “we can now conclude that CAR-T cells can actually cure patients of leukemia,” said Dr. Carl June, an author in the study.
CAR-T cell therapy is done by collecting a sample of the patient’s T cells, or white blood cells that are essential to the body’s immune system, and modifying them to seek out cancer cells and destroy them. The cells are then transferred back to the patient via IV.
Olson, who had been battling cancer since 1996, had previously undergone chemotherapy and was told that he might need a bone marrow transplant when his doctor offered a new method to fight his cancer. He was excited by the science and wanted to avoid the bone marrow transplant, so he chose the new cell therapy.
Within a week of the cell therapy, Olson was showing outstanding results. “It was the very next week that [Dr. Porter] sat me down and he said, ‘We cannot find a single cancer cell in your body,” he said. Ludwig, the second patient, showed similar results to Olson’s.
The observations of the modified cells are considered breakthroughs in the scientific community.
The modified cells eventually evolved into what is called helper cells to assist in killing cancer cells before taking over the patients’ bodies. Multiple experts have extracted the cells from the body and examined them to analyze and understand how they persist and evolve in the human body.
Despite the word “cure” being a heavy word in science, Dr. Armin Ghobadi of Washington University in Seattle has said that this gene therapy is most likely a cure. Dr. Ghobadi, an expert in gene and cellular immunotherapy for cancer, said that the findings are “just really beautiful to see.”
Since these results have been concluded, thousands of individuals are being treated by CAR-T cell therapy, which has now evolved into being a treatment for certain blood cancers that have been approved by a multitude of health authorities worldwide, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It was first approved to battle childhood leukemia in 2017. In 2019, CAR-T was approved for multiple myeloma.
The new challenge with CAR-T cell therapy is to focus on types of cancer such as lung, colon, and other types to attempt to diminish the fatality rate of solid cancers. Another challenge is how to reduce side effects. Olson was ill for a few weeks after his treatment, and the cell therapy can cause cytokine release syndrome, an overreaction by the immune system, and swelling in the brain in some cases. The therapy is extremely expensive as well, a challenge that will put many patients in jeopardy.
Both patients in the original study did well after the experiment. Ludwig traveled the country with his wife before unfortunately passing away early last year due to Covid-19 complications
Olson says that he is extremely grateful for what the University of Pennsylvania has done for his life. “What’s changed is the dimension of hope. It’s a brand-new world.”
Image Credit: Doug Olson