Researchers have found “extraordinary” success by manipulating immune cells to target acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Researchers have found “extraordinary” success by manipulating immune cells to target acute lymphoblastic leukemia. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Early trials of an immune therapy treatment for leukemia found a 94 percent success rate, and that represents “a major advancement in the treatment of patients with cancer,” a Spectrum Health cancer specialist says.

“It holds great promise for the future,” said Stephanie Williams, MD, the chief of the adult blood and marrow transplant program at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center.

Researchers reported “extraordinary” success with manipulating immune cells to target acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

In 35 patients who were expected to have only months to live, 94 percent went into remission, according to a report in The Guardian.

The researchers reported response rates greater than 80 percent with other blood cancers.

“This is really a new era in cancer medicine. It is very exciting,” Dr. Williams said. “We hope we can manipulate the immune system to do a lot of the work.”

The findings hold hope not just in the fight against leukemia. Research has also focused on using the approach against lymphoma, myeloma and cervical and pancreatic cancer, she said.

The research conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Washington aims to harness the power of T-cells, white blood cells that attack foreign or abnormal cells, including cancerous ones.

“Even when triggered, the natural immune response is neither potent or persistent enough to vanquish cancer cells,” states a news release by the center.

However, the scientists found improved response when they engineered the T-cells to recognize and attack cancer cells.

In addition to the success with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the treatment had promising results when used in 40 patients with lymphoma. More than 50 percent went into remission. And in non-Hodgkins lymphoma patients, 80 percent saw diminished cancer symptoms, according to the Guardian report.

After 30 years of fighting cancer, Dr. Williams said the progress with immune therapy “is very exciting. This has been very much in the news and the minds of cancer specialists.”

Dr. Stanley Riddell, the oncologist leading the study, said researchers are refining ways to increase the therapy’s effectiveness and to reduce side effects. Riddell discussed the findings Sunday, Feb. 14, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The treatments are targeted therapy, and don’t involve the broad range of side effects caused by traditional chemotherapy. But they can cause neurological symptoms and cytokine release syndrome—which can involve joint aches, fevers and drop in blood pressure.

“I think in the next five years, we will see a lot of investment and research,” Dr. Williams said. “It’s going to take time and money to investigate this and to be committed to moving forward with this type of treatment.”

If you have been diagnosed with cancer and would like a consultation or second opinion, call the Spectrum Health Cancer Center at 1.855.SHCANCER (1.855.742.2623).