Gene Therapy Used to Treat Cancer of the Blood

A new breakthrough in health technology is showing positive signs in effectively treating cancer.  Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are looking to combat cancer by building an immune system perfectly geared to do just that.  The new process involves using the body’s own defense system to kill cancer cells—similar to the way the body is able to fight off infections and diseases and better protect itself against instances of disease in the future.

William Ludwig was 65 years old when he realized that his chances of recovering from his chronic lymphocytic leukemia were looking bleak.  Chemotherapy had stopped being effective, and a transplant of bone marrow was not in the cards for him.  It was then that Ludwig heard of a brand new therapy in the works at the University of Pennsylvania.  The experiment is a gene therapy which employs the use of deactivated HIV-1 (the virus that causes AIDS) being injected into patients suffering with cancer, with the hopes that the replicating qualities of the HIV-1 virus will lend itself to combatting the ever spreading cancerous cells.

Without being certain of the outcome, Ludwig signed on for the experiment that would hopefully succeed where all the others had failed. He described the move as a momentous last act—a type of “Hail Mary” for his life. It was the first time anyone used such a method as treatment…and, for William Ludwig, it worked.

It took place last year when Ludwig reported to doctors who  “removed a billion of his T-cells—a type of white blood cell that fights viruses and tumors—and gave them new genes that would program the cells to attack his cancer.”  These new T-cells were rebooted with a “gutted” version of HIV-1, making it non-lethal however nonetheless controversial.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-1, in the case of this experiment, was reinterpreted to cause no harm to the person in whom it was to be supplanted.  Researchers were just using the HIV-1 strain to take advantage of these fast-duplicating properties.  “Viruses are often used as carriers (or vectors) to insert DNA into other cells because that kind of genetic sabotage is exactly what viruses normally specialize in doing.” 

Dr. Carl June, who conducted the experiment, explains why HIV-1 was the best choice: “It incorporates the ability of HIV to infect cells but not to reproduce itself.”  Once back in the body, the newly outfitted T-cells are supposed to wage war on the cancerous cells, kill them, and leave the body better equipped in case of a relapse anywhere in the future.

Once the new T-cells were reinserted back into Ludwig through a drip, it took days before any signs appeared that showed that it was or was not working.  Ten days had passed before, as according to the New York Times, “all hell broke loose.”  Ludwig became overcome with chills began shaking.  His temperature went up as his blood pressure went down.  Doctors were then forced to move him to an intensive care and called in his family in case the situation deteriorated.  Weeks later when the fever had disappeared, they then discovered that so too had the cancer.  “I have my life back,” Ludwig relishes.

Another patient (whose name was not released) was contacted via email about his personal experience with the same gene therapy treatment.  After undergoing the same types of chills and fever, he “was sure the war was on—I was sure C.L.L. cells were dying.” That moment of sickness was precislely what they had thought.  The warrior cells had waged war on the cancer and the body was feeling the worst of it. 

For the moment, William Ludwig is in complete remission.  His treatment was a preliminary trial meant to scope out if the therapy was safe and in what size doses it should b given.  Whether this will be the default method of treatment is hard to tell as of now—additional research still needs to be done.  However, with these new findings, we may be on the brink of a new type of healing that cuts right down to the source of cancer, making for a cleaner less problematic cure.

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