There’s a new experimental cure for the most common form of Leukemia that has scientists stunned at how successful it is with only a single injection. And it almost never came about due to lack of funding:
Doctors had told Bill Ludwig, one of the research volunteers, that he would die from his leukemia within weeks. Then he got the experimental treatment a year ago.
With tears welling up, he told NBC, “I’m more closer to the people I love and I appreciate them more… I’m getting emotional… the grass is greener and flowers smell wonderful.”
The other two patients have chosen to remain anonymous but one who happens to be a scientist himself wrote, “I am still trying to grasp the enormity of what I am a part of — and of what the results will mean to countless others with CLL or other forms of cancer. When I was a young scientist, like many I’m sure, I dreamed that I might make a discovery that would make a difference to mankind – I never imagined I would be part of the experiment.”
Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania published research on Wednesday on their efforts to come up with a treatment for chroniclymphocytic leukemia (CLL) which is the most common form of Leukemia. Usually it’s treated with chemotherapy, but that’ll just keep it at bay. The only way to cure it previously was via a bone marrow transplant which only has about a 50% success rate and brings with it a whole host of problems.
This new treatment involves using a modified version of the HIV virus to insert modified genes into white blood cells collected from the patient which makes the white blood cells into lean, mean, cancer killing machines. They cultivate a whole bunch of these new super-powered white blood cells and then inject them back into the patient:
In similar past experimental treatments for several types of cancer the re-injected white cells killed a few cancer cells and then died out. But the Penn researchers inserted a gene that made the white blood cells multiply by a thousand fold inside the body. The result, as researcher June put it, is that the white blood cells became “serial killers” relentlessly tracking down and killing the cancer cells in the blood, bone marrow and lymph tissue.
As the white cells killed the cancer cells, the patients experienced the fevers and aches and pains that one would expect when the body is fighting off an infection, but beyond that the side effects have been minimal.
How awesome is that? That’s pretty fucking awesome! So why did it almost not happen?
Both the National Cancer Institute and several pharmaceutical companies declined to pay for the research. Neither applicants nor funders discuss the reasons an application is turned down. But good guesses are the general shortage of funds and the concept tried in this experiment was too novel and, thus, too risky for consideration.
The researchers did manage to get a grant from the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy, a charity founded by Barbara and Edward Netter after their daughter-in-law died of cancer. The money was enough to finance the trials on the first three patients.
There’s still a ways to go before this will become widely available, but it’s a stunning result so far to cure two out of three people and on the one it didn’t cure it still made a helluva difference. Most exciting is the fact that this technique could possibly be effective on other forms of cancer as well. The good news is that there should be plenty of funding coming in now to really put it to the test and see if these results are a fluke or a real breakthrough.