News & Publications

More Good News for Cancer Patients: Immunotherapy Breakthroughs

March 27, 2013 | Brian Brewer

Last week presented us with some really good news coming out of CRI-funded laboratories and clinics. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and many other news publications reported the amazing success of an experimental immune-based cancer treatment for people with leukemia.

The therapy genetically modifies a patient’s own immune cells, causing them to attack and destroy cells that express a specific protein, CD19, found on leukemic and normal B cells, a type of immune system cell. One patient on the small study with advanced disease that had failed treatment with chemotherapy experienced a complete remission within eight days of receiving the immunotherapy.

Photo: Dr. Renier Brentjens, lead author on the study, with one of his patients. Source: Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

In adults, acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a “devastating, galloping disease,” according to Dr. Michel Sadelain, senior author on the study and director of the Center for Cell Engineering and the Gene Transfer and Gene Expression Laboratory at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

"We had hoped, but couldn't have predicted that the response would be so profound and rapid," said Dr. Renier J. Brentjens, the first author of [the] study.

Patients like the ones in the study, who relapse after chemotherapy, usually have only a few months left, Sadelain said. But now, three of the five [patients] have been in remission for 5 to 24 months. Two others have died: one was in remission but died from a blood clot, and the other relapsed. The survivors have gone on to have bone marrow transplants. Their prognosis is good, but relapse is still possible, and only time will tell.

Cancer Research Institute 26th Annual Awards Dinner

Photo: Dr. Michele Sadelain (second from right) and Dr. Carl June (second from left) at CRI's 26th Annual Awards Dinner in 2013.

Dr. Sadelain received funding from the Cancer Research Institute in 2010 for preclinical studies of T-cell based immunotherapy. Last year, we honored him with the 2013 William B. Coley Award for Distinguished Research in Tumor Immunology, along with Dr. Carl H. June at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, another pioneer in gene-modified T cell immunotherapy for cancer. Dr. June developed a similar treatment that was widely publicized when it saved the life of 7-year old Emma Whitehead who suffered from the childhood form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“This is the first report showing some real, clinically beneficial activity in adult lymphoblastic leukemia,” said June. He said his team was also starting to test its version of the cell therapy on patients with the disease.

We’re encouraged by the success Drs. Sadelain and June have had with their gene-modified T cell therapy. It represents an important step forward for cancer immunotherapy, and we’re proud to have been part of making this work possible.

Our support of the field for 60 years, and our current funding for Dr. June’s work in testing his therapy in pancreatic cancer patients is propelling cancer immunotherapy to the forefront of cancer research and treatment. The stories of the patients whose lives have been saved by these immunotherapies inspire us to continue forging ahead.

LInda Lehnert
Is this posssibly a good treatment for my husband who has stage2b non-small cell lung cancer. After the lower half of his right lung was removed he was unable to have chemotherapy because his white cell count is low at .03. He is doing a holist type treatment. We are always looking for another treatment for him..
4/18/2013 4:08:38 PM

Rhoda Jaslow
Is there any possibility that this could be a treatment for adenoid cystic carcinoma. There is currently no treatment for this cancer and chemotherapy does not work as has been shown. Large numbers of people are desperately searching for some glimmer of hope for effective treatment.
4/9/2013 10:12:08 AM