Scientists Kill Cancer by Reprogramming Immune Cells

In what’s being called extraordinary results in a clinical trial, scientists have reprogrammed Leukemia patients’ T-cells to target cancer. The treatment worked 94 percent of the time—putting the patient in full remission.


“This is unprecedented in medicine, to be honest, to get response rates in this range in these very advanced patients,” Stanley Riddell, an immunotherapy researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, explained at the conference, as The Guardian reports.

“In the laboratory and in clinical trials, we are seeing dramatic responses in patients with tumors that are resistant to conventional high-dose chemotherapy,” he added in a press statement. “The merging of gene therapy, synthetic biology and cell biology is providing new treatment options for patients with refractory malignancies and represents a novel class of therapeutics with the potential to transform cancer care.”

Scientist have been working on this promising treatment for years, but have just now begun applying it to human patients.

Typical immune response to cancer works but cannot overcome aggressive tumors. As Science Alert puts it, this is where immunotherapy comes in:

to put the system into overdrive, scientists perform what’s known as adoptive T-cell transfer. This means they first extract patients’ T-cells from their blood, and, using gene transfer, introduce receptors that will aggressively target a specific cancer cell. Once back inside the body, these newly engineered T-cells regenerate to create an army of immune cells prepped to take down tumors.

This is using the natural immune system to treat disease, not the clunky scorched-earth policy of chemotherapy. There are risks—2 patients died from complications—but with such a high remission rate for advanced cancer, it may be the cure people have been waiting for.