Cautious excitement about a “living cancer reagent”

The patient was a 57-year-old radiologist with advanced melanoma. The treatment was experimental—it combined immune-sensitized T cells with chemotherapy, and it had worked for a 16-year-old boy at death’s door. After years of unsuccessful trials, the therapy had evolved to the point where it made a volleyball-sized tumor disappear from the boy’s pelvis and left him free of disease.

Did the new patient want to try it? “He said, ‘Absolutely, doc. I want to receive this new treatment while it’s still working!’ ” recalled Steven A. Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., head of the surgery branch at the National Cancer Institute.

The patient was joking, but years of effort with vaccine and cell transfer therapies for cancer are starting to pay off, Rosenberg said at Cancer Center grand rounds in May. Combining CD4 cells with sensitized CD8 cells in the right proportion made the difference. “We gave the [16-year-old] patient a cell packet of 23 grams, and it made over half a kilogram of tumor disappear,” he said. “The reason is that it’s a living cancer reagent. These cells continue to live and produce anticancer activity inside the patient.”


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