Did we just get a small step closer to curing cancer?

Image: Image: REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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It’s something that affects us all, either directly or through someone we know: cancer. Just a generation ago, receiving a cancer diagnosis was in most cases a death sentence. In the 1970s in the United Kingdom, for example, three-quarters of people died within 10 years of being told they had cancer. Today in the country, half of those hearing the dreaded C word will live another 10 years or longer.

That doesn’t make it any less scary – it is, as US Vice-President Joe Biden said in Davos last month, “the most frightening word anyone could hear walking out of a doctor’s office”. After all, cancer is still one of the biggest killers, and experts predict that within the next 20 years, there will be 22 million new cases each year.

As Eva-Maria Hempe, a project manager on the Forum's health team, points out, the economic burden is also huge: "Non-communicable diseases such as cancer are more than a personal tragedy – they're a threat to global prosperity. Their cumulative direct and indirect cost over the next 15 years will be around five times the cost triggered by the financial crisis in the 15 years following 2008," she says.

But this week scientists in the US unveiled what they called an “extraordinary” breakthrough in the treatment of the deadly disease. Did we just get one step closer to finding a cure for cancer?

‘This is unprecedented in medicine’

So what is this breakthrough that has so many people excited? It’s a treatment where scientists take a patient’s T-cells – a type of white blood cell that controls our immune response – and then “reprogramme them to recognize and combat cancer”, lead scientist Stanley Riddell told Sky News. These engineered cells are then infused back into the patient so they can target the cancer cells. “The T-cells that we put inside the patient will actually grow until the tumour is eliminated,” Riddell explained.

The results after the first clinical trials have been nothing short of remarkable: of 26 terminally ill patients with only two to five months to live, 24 went into complete remission, something Riddell says has never been seen before. “This is extraordinary. This is unprecedented in medicine, to get response rates in this range in these very advanced patients.”

Chiara Bonini, a haematologist at San Raffaele University in Milan, told journalists at the Guardian that the method could eventually be used as a long-term treatment for the disease: the engineered cells would “remember (the cancer) from 10 years earlier, and kill it so quickly you wouldn’t even know you were infected”.

Small steps

The treatment, though, is not without side effects. Patients can experience high fever and dangerous drops in blood pressure, and two of those involved in the trials died after their immune systems went into overdrive. “These are still early steps towards making this treatment as safe and effective as it can be,” Alan Worsley from Cancer Research UK advised.

And as revolutionary as this treatment is, it’s far from the silver bullet for cancer some people are making it out to be. The biggest successes so far have been in the treatment of blood cancers – such as leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The next step will be to extend it to solid tumours, such as breast or lung cancer, which also happen to be among the deadliest forms of cancer.

But in his interview with Sky News, Riddell sounded cautiously optimistic that the same treatment could one day be used on all forms of cancer: “I still retain some optimism that some form of T-cell therapy will work for those cancers.”

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