NYT: Scientists puzzle out prospects of a new T-cell cancer killer

A billion genetically engineered T cells came close to killing William Ludwig, before they saved him from leukemia--at least temporarily.

The New York Times explores with considerable detail the story of a new treatment that grabbed headlines around the world recently with the anecdotal news that three patients had been effectively treated with a radical new approach to fighting the disease. While mainstream outlets reveled in the news--grabbing a huge audience for a story that in turn caused some scientists to shake their heads over the lengthy R&D work that remains--this in-depth article carefully explores the potential as well as the extreme risks faced by patients.

All three of the patients tested had advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia. All three had run out of options, essentially facing a death sentence. Two experienced complete remissions, including Ludwig, with one partial--though the scientists involved carefully note that it's too early to call this a cure. Now here's the big disclaimer: With results from only three patients, doctors have years to go before they can get sufficient data from large numbers to fully understand how this technique works.  

It's all very early-stage work.

But experts are willing to endorse the potential of this approach. "Conceptually, it's very, very big," says Walter Urba of the Providence Cancer Center.

As The Times makes clear, there's nothing new about genetically tailoring T cells. Now scientists are taking a close look at the way the team used bits of DNA to reprogram cells, transported new genes into T cells using HIV messengers and spurred the multiplication of T cells by a factor of up to 10,000, liquidating the cancer opposition. The treatment also created memory cells that can fight any return of the cancer.

- here's the NYT article