T cells extracted from patients and then genetically customized to trigger an attack on cancer cells successfully wiped out leukemia in two of three patients in a matter of weeks, offering a possible replacement one day for risky bone marrow transplants as well as a personalized approach that has potential in other cancers as well. Only three patients were given the drug and two of them have been free of leukemia for more than a year. The third patient in the small trial was in remission for 7 months.
The data is more anecdotal at this stage, but several experts in the field were wowed by the news that not only did the scientists from the University of Pennsylvania create T cells designed to seek and destroy malignant cells, they also successfully engineered them to divide once they were confronted by cancer cells, creating an overwhelming force to defeat leukemia. And the researchers cited ovarian and lung cancer alongside melanoma and myeloma as promising new fronts for these T cells to fight in.
"Within three weeks, the tumors had been blown away, in a way that was much more violent than we ever expected," said senior author Carl June, director of translational research at the Abramson Cancer Center. "It worked much better than we thought it would."
News of the cancer trial quickly spread last night, raising questions about which biopharma company would wind up brokering a deal for the intellectual property now held by June.
"I want to make sure it gets FDA-approved, so there has to be a company involved," June told Bloomberg. "It's at an early stage so we'll see what the industry does, whether we'll work with an existing company or a new start-up, I don't know yet."
Of course, it's also important to note that early-stage studies like this are a prelude to years of clinical research work as investigators set out to determine if the promising data from a tiny study can be replicated in much larger, randomized studies. And as most biotech executives know, the odds of success when you first set out on a clinical odyssey are always low.