CAR T Therapy Is a Durable “Cure” for Some Leukemia Cancers

(p. A17) Doug Olson was feeling kind of tired in 1996. When a doctor examined him she frowned. “I don’t like the feel of those lymph nodes,” she said, poking his neck. She ordered a biopsy. The result was terrifying. He had chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a blood cancer that mostly strikes older people and accounts for about a quarter of new cases of leukemia.

“Oh Lordy,” Mr. Olson said. “I thought I was done for.” He was only 49 and, he said, had always been healthy.

Six years went by without the cancer progressing. Then it started to grow. He had four rounds of chemotherapy but the cancer kept coming back. He had reached pretty much the end of the line when his oncologist, Dr. David Porter at the University of Pennsylvania, offered him a chance to be among the very first patients to try something unprecedented, known as CAR T cell therapy.

In 2010, he became the second of three patients to get the new treatment.

At the time, the idea for this sort of therapy “was way out there,” said Dr. Carl June, the principal investigator for the trial at Penn, and he had tempered his own expectations that the cells he was providing to Mr. Olson as therapy would survive.

“We thought they would be gone in a month or two,” Dr. June said.

Now, a decade later, he reports that his expectations were completely confounded. In a paper published Wednesday in Nature, Dr. June and his colleagues, Dr. J. Joseph Melenhorst and Dr. Porter, report that the CAR T treatment made the cancer vanish in two out of the three patients in that early trial. All had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The big surprise, though, was that even though the cancer seemed to be long gone, the CAR T cells remained in the patients’ bloodstreams, circulating as sentinels.

“Now we can finally say the word ‘cure’ with CAR T cells,” Dr. June said.

Although most patients will not do as well, the results hold out hope that, for some, their cancer will be vanquished.

For the full story, see:

Gina Kolata. “Potential Leukemia Cure Leads to New Mysteries.” The New York Times (Thursday, February 3, 2022): A17.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 2, 2022, and has the title “A Cancer Treatment Makes Leukemia Vanish, but Creates More Mysteries.”)

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