Researchers are reporting great success with an experimental gene therapy to treat advanced leukemia. Patients are given genetically modified versions of their own immune cells. Alison Harmelin spoke with one of the patients in the study.
Father Dennis Billy's leukemia has been in remission for more than two years. He underwent what researchers are calling a groundbreaking new treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
"As my blood was filtering through the machine somehow part of my T-cells which are part of my blood, they were filtered out," said Billy.
Doctors took the immune cells of patients and modified those cells so that they could recognize and destroy cancer cells. The result, 88 percent of the patients achieved complete remission.
"This is really one of the watershed moments where we find that actually can modulate the immune system to recognize cancer," said Dr. Renier Brentjens of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
All 16 patients in the study had a type of leukemia that is difficult to treat because there is a high relapse rate.
"When we infused these cells into the patients, these patients became sick as if they had a bad infection," said Dr. Brentjens. "But once the cancer cells go away as they're being killed off by the immune system, that immune response goes away as well."
Father Billy's personalized T-cell treatment enabled him to have a successful bone marrow transplant.
"It's sort of like making medicine out of your own body," said Billy.
He credits his remission to both his doctors and his faith.
Researchers hope the experimental therapy may one day be able to treat other cancers including breast and colon cancer.