PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 11 (UPI) -- Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Abramson Cancer Center and Perelman School of Medicine used patients' own immune cells to fight cancer.
The findings, published simultaneously in the New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine, demonstrate the use of gene transfer therapy to create "serial killer" T cells -- white blood cells that play a central role in immunity -- aimed at cancerous tumors.
Senior author Dr. Carl June, director of Translational Research and a professor at the Abramson Cancer Center, says the cancer treatment breakthrough was 20 years in the making.
The small study involved three patients who had few other treatment options outside a bone marrow transplant.
After removing the patients' cells, the research team reprogrammed them to attack tumor cells by genetically modifying them using a lentivirus vector, which encodes an antibody-like protein, June says.
The T cells focus all of their killing activity on the tumor cells, but ignore the normal cells, which limits side effects typically experienced during standard cancer therapies.
"We saw at least a 1,000-fold increase in the number of modified T cells in each of the patients. Drugs don't do that," June said in a statement. "In addition to an extensive capacity for self-replication, the infused T cells are serial killers. Overall, they destroyed at least 2 pounds of tumor in each patient."
Within three weeks, the tumors had been blown away, June said.