What seemed like the plot for a science fiction movie became the basis for an innovative treatment. Imagine being able to reprogram someone’s immune system in order to detect and completely destroy cancer on its own.
Stephanie Florence can truly say that she has been given a second chance at life, thanks to a new cutting-edge form of treatment called CAR T immunotherapy.
In 2006, at the age of 34, Stephany was given some shattering news – she was diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma deemed “incurable”. She was devastated, but didn’t lose hope and spent the next nine years trying every single treatment option available: radiation, courses of chemotherapy, targeted therapy and even stem cell transplants.
Unfortunately, nothing was working and both the disease and the treatments were taking their toll on her body. It felt like the only thing left to do was to accept the sentence, when she heard about an experimental trial called CAR T immunotherapy.
On July 2nd 2015, Stephany walked inside Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to receive her infusion. It was a tiny bag of her own blood with reprogrammed T cells, a subtype of white blood cells that play a central role in cell-mediated immunity.
A few weeks later, on the 30th, after a scheduled scan, she was informed that she was clear, the cancer was in remission. It was a miracle!
The phenomenon was originally observed in bone marrow transplants, where T cells from bone marrow donors were able to detect and attack leukemia cells. It took more than 30 years to genetically engineer receptors that could target specific proteins in cancer patients.
While the program is still in the initial stages, results so far are astounding. For non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients, the rate of remission is about 40%, and for acute myeloid leukemia, it can go up to 90%.
As with most experimental treatments, there are yet some things to improve: reduce side effects, which include fever and high blood pressure, and also lower the cost. Once resolved, this living drug could become the key to finding a cure for cancer.