Breakthrough T cell research could be promising for leukemia patients

On average, more than 12,000 children in the United States are diagnosed with cancer each year.

One recent breakthrough appears to help leukemia patients. New data suggests genetically engineered T cells or gene therapy can treat certain cases of leukemia. I'll tell you more about that in a moment.

The families dealing with cancer rejoice for any news of improved treatment. And doctors are excited by the prospect of having another means to save a young life.

Doctor Frederick Goldman is director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Bone Marrow Transplant program. He attended the annual meeting for the American Society of Hematology this past weekend, and saw the data first hand.

"They removed the T cells that were healthy from these patients that had leukemia and they grew them up in a test tube essentially. And then they took those cells that they grew and infected them with a virus that carried in it a protein that could recognize the leukemia cells. So now you've got a T cell that programmed and directed to simple fight the leukemia cell," said Goldman.

In other words, they programmed the patients own immune system to fight cancer. The treatment, developed by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, has been used on twelve patients. Two of them are children.

The research is promising. But Goldman says right now gene therapy is more suitable for high-risk patients who have exhausted all other options.

"Probably this won't be used initially, but I think in the future it could be. It certainly does have the capacity to be safer. We do know that chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants are associated with side effects. And sometimes it's the side effects that can hurt a person more than the leukemia itself," he said.

Treatments like this take several years to develop, but Dr. Goldman believes gene therapy could potentially be used to treat illnesses other than leukemia in the future.

He says he is "cautiously" optimistic because leukemia cells have the tendency to mutate, which means patients could have a relapse. He says chemotherapy is still a very reliable method of treatment.