Revolutionary cancer treatment would act like ‘living drug’ and prevent disease for at least 14 years

A revolutionary cancer treatment that remembers the disease and remains like a watchman to prevent it returning is being developed.

Immune cells are being engineered so they not only boost the body’s natural defences to fight tumours but stand guard for life, acting like a vaccine.

The study, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington DC, has proven for the first time that
engineered “memory T-cells” can persist in the body for 14-plus years.

Prof Chiara Bonini, a haematologist at San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, said: “T-cells are a living drug, and in particular have the potential to persist in our body for our whole lives.

“Imagine when you are given a vaccine as a kid and you are protected against flu for all of your life. Why is that? Because when a T-cell encounters the antigen and gets activated, it kills the pathogen but also persists as a memory cell.”

In trials at a Milan hospital, 10 patients who had bone marrow transplants were given immune boosting therapy that included the memory T-cells.

They were found to be there 14 years later.

Immunotherapies, which harness the body’s own immune system, look set to replace cell-damaging chemotherapies. But one of the biggest challenges is to make these changes last long enough that the cancer cannot come back.

Prof Daniel Davis, from the University of Manchester, called the study an “important advance” in cancer treatment. “The implication is that infusing genetically modified versions of these particular T-cells, the stem memory T-cells, could provide a long-lasting immune response against a person’s cancer,” he said.

“Immunotherapy has great potential to revolutionize cancer treatments and this study shows which type of T-cells might be especially useful to manipulate for long-lasting protection. This research area is hot. Our knowledge of T-cells is paying off here with important new ideas for tackling cancer.”

In another presentation at the AAAS, experts from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle showed their T-cell immunotherapy treatment for leukaemia had an “unprecedented” success rate of 94 per cent in patients who were given only months to live.

Prof Stanley Riddell, from Fred Hutchinson, said balancing the different types of immune cells and then equipping them with cancer-sensing molecules had saved the lives of leukaemia patients for whom all other treatments had failed.

His team treated 26 patients whose acute lymphoblastic leukaemia was so advanced they had only two to five months to live. After 18 months, 24 of the patients were in complete remission. “These are in patients that have failed everything,” Prof Riddell said. “This is extraordinary. This is
unprecedented in medicine to get response rates in this range from very advanced patients.”