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.