Ground breaking cancer treament
Initial results have been announced about a new form of cancer therapy for leukaemia. The statistics are impressive, but how excited should we be? We asked our resident cancer research specialist Kat Arney to explain...
Kat - For my day job I work for Cancer Research UK and we've had an incredibly busy week this week because there were lots of headlines saying cancer cure, treatment, all of this. And it came from a presentation that was made at a meeting where researchers who'd been running a small clinical trial of a new type of therapy that's called "immunotherapy" where researchers use cells from a patient's own immune system that they take out of the patient.
They basically genetically engineer them in such a way that they can recognise and destroy cancer cells and then they put them back into the patient's body where the seek out, recognise, and destroy cancer cells. Now it's a very small study that was done - there were about 35 patients in it and for types of cancer called leukaemia and lymphoma.
These are cancers that affect cells in the blood system and that's quite an important point. And they had, in some cases, some quite remarkable sounding, effectively cures, people seemed to get completely better. And these were people with terminal cancer and they'd had all the treatment options they possible could and their cancer was still growing.
That said - it's a small study. It was also presented at a meeting; we haven't got the full set of data; it hasn't been reviewed and published in a scientific journal. And it's really important to point out that there were at least seven people who had very severe side effects from this treatment. There's something called a cytokine storm, where their immune system gets massively over-stimulated; it produces all these really unpleasant molecules and, in fact, two people died as a result of this huge immune over-stimulation.
So while the treatment can work for some people, it didn't work for all of them and there are side effects. So there's a lot of work to be done to kind of unpick this and, also, it was for these particular types of blood cancer because they have a molecule on the surface of the cancer cells that relatively - relatively - easy to train the immune cells to seek out and destroy. Other cancers, types of cancer, particularly the listener who's written in here about her son who has a type of cancer called retinoblastoma which is a type of cancer that affects the eye in children.
Those cancers are going to be more difficult to target because you have to work out what are the molecules on the surface of that particular cancer. How do we train the immune system to target those? How do we get these immune cells there into the tumour in enough level that they can actually do their duty. So it's a huge ongoing research project around the world.
There's lots and lots of labs working on this; lots of trials underway. And it is really exciting and certainly I've worked at Cancer Research UK for 11 years now and it is very exciting stuff but it's not the cure for cancer right now.