Immunotherapy Trial Puts A Third Of Terminal Cancer Patients Into Remission, But At A Cost

Six months on and some patients were still completely clear of the cancer. kaitong.yepoon/Shutterstock

Josh Davis 01 Mar 2017, 17:33

Early results from a form of immunotherapy seem to suggest that the treatment has been used successfully to treat terminally ill cancer patients, sending some of them into remission. If the research can be confirmed it would be a major breakthrough, though there are still massive doubts about the treatment's safety and the side effects it causes.

The treatment is something known as chimeric antigen receptors (CAR) T-cell therapy, and has been likened to a “living drug”. It involves filtering a patient’s blood to remove key immune cells known as T-cells, and then genetically altering them in the lab to make them more efficient at hunting down cancer cells, before putting them back in the body to, hopefully, identify and kill the cancer cells that are evading the unaltered immune system.

Results from a trial involving 101 patients suffering from one of three different types of non-Hodgkin lymphomas, released by the US pharmaceutical company Kite Pharma, claim that by using CAR-T therapy they have put a third of the participants into complete remission, in which they have been clear of the cancer a full six months after a single dose of treatment. Not only that, but 80 percent also saw their cancers shrink by at least half during the period of the research.

“These results are exceptional and suggest that more than a third of patients with refractory aggressive [non-Hodgkin lymphoma] could potentially be cured after a single infusion of axicabtagene ciloleucel,” said Jeff Wiezorek, Senior Vice President of Clinical Development at Kite Pharma.

The results, however, have come at a cost. The treatment is far from safe, and some experts have warned that there should be extreme caution about further trials because they come at the expense of unknown and, in many cases, severe side effects. Two of the patients died during the trial as a direct result of the treatment, while a completely separate study by another company also researching into CAR-T therapy was halted as some of their participants also died.

The worry is that the altered T-cells may cause the immune system to overreact and attack the body rather than the cancer. In the Kite Pharma trial, around 13 percent of the participants experienced this, while a third suffered neurological issues such as confusion and difficulty speaking, though they state that these only lasted a few days.

The full results are expected to be presented at the American Association for Cancer Research conference in April, where more details about the impressive results, and the potential side effects, are sure to be discussed.

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