Cancer Docs Abuzz About New Leukemia Treatment

Many wonder if immunotherapy is the future of cancer treatment.

ByABC News
August 11, 2011, 3:08 PM

Aug. 12, 2011— -- In preliminary research that's been dubbed "remarkable," "dramatic" and "sensational," doctors made the most common type of leukemia disappear in two patients, and reduced cancer cells by 70 percent in a third.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania transformed patients' own white blood cells into "serial killers" capable of annihilating cancer cells within the body. The two patients who experienced full recovery are still in remission more than a year later.

Right now, the only way to cure leukemia is through a bone marrow transplant, which carries several risks.

"[The serial killers] can kill one tumor cell and then go and kill another, and we found in all three of our patients that the T-cells killed at least a thousand tumor cells, and that's the first time that has ever been shown anywhere near that kind of efficiency," said Dr. Carl June, the lead author of the study, in a video released with the research.

"Previous attempts to engage the immune system in destroying cancer cells have often relied on 'vaccination' with tumor cells or tumor proteins," Dr. Douglas Faller, director of Boston University School of Medicine Cancer Center, wrote in an email to

But in this case, researchers genetically altered and reprogrammed the killer cells of the immune system to recognize the leukemia tumor cells, Faller noted.

And for the million dollar question: What does this mean for the future of cancer treatment?

"This is an evolving area of treatment that is pretty sophisticated," said Dr. Steven Rosenberg, chief of the surgery branch at the National Cancer Institute. "Someone needs a fair amount of expertise in immunology and molecular biology, and there are very few groups that can do this around the world."

In 2006, Rosenberg published the first study in which T-cell receptors were used for gene therapy, combined with chemotherapy, in 17 people who had advanced melanoma. Two patients from the trial remained disease-free several years after the study.