When Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, was an oncology fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle in the 1980s, he specialized in bone marrow transplantation. The therapy could be lifesaving for patients with blood cancers, but it was also dangerous. Graft-versus-host disease was one of the most feared complications. In such cases, the T lymphocytes from the donor's immune system see the recipient's tissues as foreign and attack. If left unchecked, the T cells cause enormous organ damage, potentially killing the patient.
June realized then that if the power of the T cells could be harnessed, it might be a groundbreaking way to treat cancer and, potentially, save patient lives.
In the decades since then, June has worked toward that goal one step at a time. Working with Bruce Levine, PhD, director of the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility, he figured out how to harvest T cells from patients and grow them in culture, so they could be greatly multiplied in number and infused back into the patient. Levine is also the Barbara and Edward Netter Associate Professor in Cancer Gene Therapy at the Abramson Cancer Center and the Department Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Then, working with numerous collaborators, June figured out how to modify the T cells so that they learned to recognize and attack a patient's tumor cells.
Finally, in August 2011, June and colleagues reported that two out of three patients treated with their own modified T cells had complete remissions of their advanced leukemia. The third patient had a partial response to the therapy.
The team has now reported that three years later in summer 2013, the two patients with complete responses remain healthy and in complete remission. The trial continues, having expaned into more adult patients with advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia and children and adults with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The first two children, treated at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, both had complete responses. The first remains, more than a year later, in complete remission. The other child suffered a relapse when her cancer reappeared with cells lacking the protein targeted by the modified T cells.