July 13, 2010
Gene Therapy Trains Immune Cells Against Cancer

Some day you'll be able to get your immune cells reprogrammed to go on hunter killer attack missions against tumors.

Researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center created a large, well armed battalion of tumor-seeking immune system cells and watched, in real time using Positron Emission Tomography (PET), as the special forces traveled throughout the body to locate and attack dangerous melanomas.

But for now this sort of thing only gets done for those tricky lab mice who have done such a great job of convincing researchers into developing medical treatments for them first.

If I had terminal cancer and a large sum of money I'd hire medical researchers to do this to my own immune system.

The gene therapy work, done with melanomas grown in mice, employed a crippled HIV-like virus to serve as a vehicle to arm the lymphocytes with T cell receptors, which caused the lymphocytes to become specific killers of cancerous cells. A reporter gene, which glows “hot” during PET scanning, also was inserted into the cells so researchers could track the genetically engineered lymphocytes after they were injected into the blood stream, made their way to the lungs and lymph nodes and then specifically homed in on the tumors wherever they were located within the body.

“We’re trying to genetically engineer the immune system to become a cancer killer and then image how the immune system operates at the same time,” said Dr. Antoni Ribas, an associate professor of hematology/oncology, a researcher at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and the senior author of the study. “We knew this approach of arming the lymphocytes with T cell receptors showed significant anti-tumor activity based on studies in humans. Now, by tracking the immune system’s reaction to cancer and imaging it in real time, we can project how the same process that succeeded in mice might behave in people.”

The study is published July 12, 2010 in the early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

I like the part in bold. Sure beats dying in a shriveled painful state of a horrible disease.

“The novelty of our work is that we were able to pack together the cancer specific T cell receptor and the PET reporter genes in a single vector and use it in mice with an intact immune system that closely resembles what we would see in real patients,” said Dr. Richard Koya, an assistant professor of surgical oncology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and first author of the study. “We were also gladly surprised to see the targeted tumors literally melt away and disappear, underscoring the power of the combined approach of immune and gene therapy to control cancer.”

Time to do this in humans who have a few months to live. Maybe Chinese researchers will do it without waiting a long time to do more animal tests.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2010 July 13 11:17 PM  Biotech Cancer

Tusky said at July 14, 2010 6:11 AM:

Any large society will ration "magic bullets" because not everyone will be deemed worth saving. In the worst case, for instance, would you treat a man who is in prison on a life sentence without the possibility of parole? The market will likely provide the filter, and this makes "magic bullets" into gold mines for providers.

I wonder about the fate of these T-cell receptor equipped lymphocytes after the cancer cells are gone.

And patients still face the problem of tissues that have been converted from, say, functional lung to a lump of scar tissue. The technique may be most useful when combined with effective very early detection

Oh brave new world!


Engineer-Poet said at July 14, 2010 7:05 AM:

If the technique can eliminate all metastases, no matter how small, it's a cure.  The lack of toxicity of programmed T cells is another huge benefit; both radiation and chemotherapy can cause cancers in the future.

ASPIRANT said at July 14, 2010 1:17 PM:

Tusky: Wouldn't it be so nice if we could just find some easy way to get rid of all the undesirables? It wasn't even necessary to mention the death row inmate or even rationing to get your point across. You just revel in thinking of easy ways society could get rid of these people.

Yet, even if I ignore your real reasons for making that argument, you're taking for granted that it's not going to be scalable, and that the treatment is going to be utterly expensive. From this, and my admittedly limited understanding of how replication for these things works, it sounds like only a matter of time before it's a routine procedure... It doesn't take, as far as I know, any rare materials or unobtainable chemicals, it's just stuff that comes from the human body. All we need is someone to design a process to create the raw materials for this therapy... Cheap.

I see a future where cancer is about as serious as pneumonia. (resisting the urge to say something utterly negative regarding the inevitable population explosion our medical technology has caused and will continue)

Engineer-Poet said at July 14, 2010 7:19 PM:

Forestalling cancer isn't going to prevent emphysema, Alzheimer's, stroke, osteoporosis, mitochondrial degeneration or a host of other things.  Diseases are one thing, but until you can prevent stuff from wearing out, 100-120 still seems to be the limit.

On the other hand, a quick cure for cancer means that you can take much bigger risks with stem cells.

Randall Parker said at July 14, 2010 11:30 PM:


Exactly. Cures for cancer are needed in order to be able to turn up cell replication for repair. Once we can turn up cell replication and repair mechanisms the incidence of stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis, and many other degenerative diseases will plummet.

Tusky said at July 16, 2010 7:48 AM:


Sorry you don't like to face up to the idea of greed and dystopic forces in the world. I remind you that drugs are cheap....to make. Consider a typical 50 milligram dose of compound X. That gives you about 9000 doses in a pound of the active. So a well-equipped chemist in a kilo-scale lab can turn out perhaps a hundred thousand doses a day. I'm telling you, drugs are cheap! So why are they expensive?

Engineer-Poet said at July 16, 2010 9:37 PM:

If you've ever worked in an occupation requiring quality control and certification, you wouldn't have to ask.

Despite this, aspirin is extremely cheap for what you get.  So are many other off-patent drugs.

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