Right Now at Penn, researchers are investigating a potential cure for cancer―and the world is starting to notice.
“Advances in modern medicine have allowed us to live longer and longer, but sadly, cancer to date has remained a constant. In short, it’s what kills us,” said Shane Smith, Founder of HBO’s VICE, in the VICE Special Report: Killing Cancer.
“Today, in real time, there is a revolution happening in the treatment of cancer, and the story is almost too incredible to believe,” said Smith. “That a) the diseases that used to kill us en masse, like smallpox, measles, and even HIV, actually hold the key to stopping this disease in its tracks, and b) for the first time in medical history, we just might be on the verge of curing cancer.”
The show, which aired February 28, 2015, focused on the use of manipulated virus cells―from the common cold, to measles, to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)―to send cancer patients into remission.
Penn’s Dr. Carl June, Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Director of Translational Research in Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, is among the featured researchers leading the charge in this fight against cancer. Dr. June’s team uses a manipulated HIV virus to reprogram the body’s own T-cells―a type of white blood cell that finds and destroys pathogens―to recognize and attack leukemia cells.
Because this approach was considered novel and risky, Dr. June had trouble finding funding for his research. Most private funding dried up during tough economic times in 2008 and 2009, and government funding was scarce, and remains so with sequestration. After the results of a small group of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) patients―who had dramatic responses to the therapy―were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine in the summer of 2011, media outlets across the globe covered the research, and funding began to flow, allowing the team to accelerate its research.
To date, 39 children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) have been treated at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with Dr. June’s investigational therapy, with 90% experiencing full remission. Adult trials continue in both CLL and ALL, as well as for other blood cancers including lymphoma and myeloma. Two of the first three CLL patients treated with this new approach remain in remission nearly five years later, and clinical trials for solid tumors including the brain cancer glioblastoma have recently begun. Last July, the T-cell therapy received breakthrough status designation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pointing to implications that this therapy could provide a cure for millions of people fighting cancer.