Risky cancer therapy with HI viruses for leukemia

Girl with leukemia saved by altered immune cells

American doctors are celebrating a success in cancer therapy these days: Emily, who has leukemia, was able to defeat blood cancer using an experimental therapy using HIV viruses. The high-risk cancer therapy had previously been tested on ten patients, but with mixed success. In the seven-year-old girl, the therapy with the altered immune cells worked very well after life-threatening side effects had first appeared. It remains to be seen whether the new procedure will mean a breakthrough in cancer therapy. Because the HI viruses did not successfully fight cancer cells in all patients. However, the pharmaceutical company Novartis already sensed a great opportunity in the therapeutic process in August and has secured the rights to commercialize it. A lot of research still has to be done before immunotherapy from the experimental stage in practice can do it, according to experts.

Deactivated HI viruses transmit genetic material to T cells At the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology in Atlanta earlier this week, Carl June presented the case of little Emily, which is now being celebrated as a sensation. The University of Pennsylvania immunologist and his team managed to save the lives of seven-year-olds suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) through experimental therapy with genetically modified HI viruses. Previously, no therapy had worked against this aggressive form of blood cancer in the girl.

With the new method, known as CTL019 in specialist circles, the body's own T cells are genetically reprogrammed in the laboratory by deactivated HI viruses so that they are able to switch off sick cells. The so-called CART cells (chimeric antigen receptor T cells) fight the B cells in the patient's body, which also include the blood cancer cells. "In order for the T cells to attack cancer, we have to add a new gene," the treating doctor, Stephan Grupp, told the news channel "ABC". “This gene enables the T cells to produce a protein that causes them to fight cancer. In order for this new gene to penetrate the T cells, we are using a virus developed on the basis of HIV. ”However, this cannot trigger any illness. "It is impossible to get HIV or any other infection," said the expert in pediatric oncology.

Risky cancer therapy has strong side effects As promising as the new therapy for leukemia may be, its side effects can be life-threatening. After the modified T cells were planted in Emily, she showed flu-like symptoms. Her condition deteriorated dramatically, so the girl had to be treated in the intensive care unit. Emily eventually helped with a drug used in rheumatoid arthritis. According to the doctors, Emily is now doing well. Bone marrow studies have shown that it is free of cancer cells today. The T cells that fight blood cancer are still in the child's blood, which should prevent relapse.

Emily is now back to school. Nevertheless, Grupp was cautious about the health status of the seven-year-old. "According to the test results, she currently has no leukemia - which also resulted in the most sensitive tests," said the doctor. “We have to wait and see how the next few years develop before we can say whether it has healed or not. It is still too early for that. "

As June reported at the congress, there were other successes besides Emily. The blood cancer cells were completely displaced in two out of three patients with chronic leukemia. In the third patient, this was at least partially successful. In another child, the CTL019 therapy initially seemed to work. However, it relapsed after a short time. The same happened to four other patients, whose condition improved through the therapy, but not enough cancer cells could be destroyed. In two cases, the therapy did not work at all.

The pharmaceutical company Novartis has high hopes for the new therapeutic process. In August the company established a research alliance with Pennsylvania University and the Center for Advanced Cellular Therapies in Philadelphia. Novartis has since held the rights to commercialize CART immunotherapy. However, critics see this as a threat to the independence of research. (sb)

Also read:
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New cancer therapy: with viruses against tumors?

Image: Gerd Altmann / pixelio.de (image is a tracing)

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