Breakthrough in leukemia treatment using T cell gene therapy

Written by A/Prof Lim Tit Meng, Chief Executive, Science Centre Singapore

A breakthrough study was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine which described the first demonstration of the use of gene transfer therapy to create T cells aimed at killing leukemia cancerous cells.

T cells are immune cells in our circulatory system. They are a subset of our lymphatic cells. T stands for thymus, a lymph organ located in the upper thorax behind the sternum, but below the thyroid gland. The thymus is where the final stage of T cells development takes place. Their activation is important for effective immune response especially for defense against cancers and pathogens.

Leukemia cells
Leukemia cells – Source: VashiDonsk

In the study, T cells were first taken out from the patient and genetically modified to recognize cancer cells using DNA transfer technology. The modified T cells were then injected back into the patient and they multiplied into clones of cancer-zooming cells killing tumor cells that had spread to various parts of the patient’s body. Multiplication of T cells during immune response is a natural property of these defense cells and the gene therapy strategy was akin to training an army specialized in terminating cancers. The patients did not reject these cells infused back to their system because they originally came from the same body. The immune response resulted in extreme high fever as the body became a war zone for a fierce cell-to-cell battle.

The researchers said their success in activating the T cells, making them multiply and then kill the cancer cells is unprecedented. Three men suffering late-stage leukemia were cured in just three weeks after being treated with genetically engineered versions of their own immune cells.

This treatment strategy comes with high risk. The courageous patients and doctors took the risk and showed the world a brave new hope. I put myself in the same shoe and if I were to make the choice, I would go for it. What about you?

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