Now there is ray of hope for those suffering from the deadly disease leukemia, as scientists have started providing details of the first apparent success with a latest method to cure the ailment. The latest approach involves transforming the patient's own blood cells into killers which track as well as eliminate their cancer cells.
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Although till now, the scientists have tried the new methodology only on three patients, the results have been conspicuous. While two of these patients seem to be free from cancer for about a year following the treatment, the condition of the third patient has improved, but still has a number of cancerous cells in the body. By now, scientists are getting ready to undertake similar gene therapy modus operandi to treat patients suffering from other different types of cancer.
According to a gene therapy specialist at the University of Pennsylvania Dr. Carl June, treatment with the new technique has worked excellently. He, who guided the research, says that they were themselves very astonished that this new approach worked so well. Dr. June further said that it has only a year since they tried the new technique on leukemia patients and now they are eager to know as to how long such retardation in cancerous growth would continue. The findings of the study were recently published by two medical journals - Science Translational Medicine and New England Journal of Medicine.
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Three men suffering from extremely developed cases of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) took part in the study undertaken by Dr. June and his team. Currently, the sole prospect of curing the ailment is transplanting the bone marrow or stem cells. However, this method is not successful all the time and involves a great risk of death. Keeping this in view, scientists have been applying themselves for several years now to discover means to enhance the ability of the immune system to combat cancer. All previous endeavors to genetically modify the bloodstream soldiers known as T-cells have only had some degree of success. In fact, the modified cells were not able to replicate as expected and also waned abruptly.
During their study, Dr. June and his associates made some modifications to the methodology used by scientists previously making use of a new carrier to dispense the new genes into the T-cells and used a signaling device instructing these cells to destroy the cancer cells as well as reproduce.
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These approach lead to several armies of killer cells that aimed at cancer cells, eliminated them and continued to destroy new cancer cells as they appeared. Dr. June said that everyone concerned is aware that the T-cells assail viruses in this manner, but they were the first to employ this approach to eliminate cancer cells. During the course of their experiment, Dr. June and his colleagues collected the blood from each of the three patients and removed the T-cells. When they were modified in a laboratory, several million cells were given back to the patients by means of three infusions.
The experiences of a 64-year-old patient, who took part in the study, have been described in detail by the researchers. During the first two weeks of the treatment using the new technique, the patient experienced no change, but he subsequently fell sick with nausea, chills and fever. In fact, all the three patients who participated in the study suffered from the same condition that takes place when a great number of cancer cells are destroyed all at once. The scientists said that this was an indication that their gene therapy was working well.
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Describing the condition of the three patients as possibly the worst-ever flu they experienced in their lifetime, Dr. June said that once this had passed, they became completely well again. The major problem is that it appears that apart from eliminating the cancer cells, this gene therapy also obliterates other different blood cells that combat infections. All the three patients have been receiving treatment for this complication every month since then.
According to Dr. June, the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania would now like to experiment the gene therapy in cancers related to leukemia and also other types of cancers, such as ovarian and pancreatic cancer. In the meantime, researchers at other institutions are considering undertaking gene therapy in brain and prostate cancer.
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It may be mentioned here that describing the findings of the gene therapy study undertaken by Dr. June and his colleagues as quite significant, Dr. Walter J. Urba, a scientist at the Providence Cancer Center in Portland, Oregon, expressed his caution owing to the size of the research. According to Dr Urba, who is an author on researches being published in the New England Journal, till now the study involves only three patients, which is definitely better that undertaking a research with just one patient, but not as good as a major study involving 100 patients.
Stating that the long-term outcome of the research is crucial, Dr. Urba said that it is important to know how these patients would be another year or two from now.
However, the views of Dr. Kanti Rai, a blood cancer specialist at the Long Island Jewish Medical Centre in New York, on the study undertaken by the scientists at the University of Pennsylvania differ. Finding it difficult to restrain his keenness, Dr. Rai said that normally he is more reticent while commenting on this kind of reports. Despite having no role in the study, Dr. Rai added that it is definitely an incredible type of accomplishment.
Meanwhile, it may be mentioned that no one among the three patients, who participated in the study, wished to be named. Nevertheless, one of them has written about his ailment and the University of Pennsylvania has his report available. This patient is a scientist himself and said that he is extremely fortunate to have participated in the study and availed the new gene therapy. However, he also wrote that when he was initially diagnosed around 15 years back at the age of 50, he did not have the same feeling.
In his statement, this patient wrote that over the years, he was successfully treated with chemotherapy till the regular drugs failed to respond. Presently, nearly a year after he joined the study, he says that he is well and continues to be in remission. The patient further writes that he is aware that his present condition might not be enduring, but he has still made a decision to announce success and believes that he has been victorious.