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Therapy turns patients' cells into cancer smart bombs

By Christy Feig
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BETHESDA, Maryland (CNN) -- Instead of using surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation, researchers from the National Institutes of Health are finding so-far limited but inspiring success in a new approach for fighting cancer, using the immune system to attack the tumors the way it would a cold or flu.

The human immune system doesn't usually fight cancer on its own, so Dr. Steven Rosenberg and his NIH colleagues are trying to genetically engineer it, using a virus they created in the lab that seeks out cancer tumors and attaches to them.

Rosenberg's idea: Mix the cells that seek out the cancer with the immune cells that destroy things and see whether it would create a sort of smart bomb for the cancer. (Rosenberg: 'Just a start')

In the study, Rosenberg tested the approach in 17 patients with advanced melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer. All the conventional treatments for the disease already had failed in all of the patients.

In 15 of the patients Rosenberg's engineered immune-cell treatment didn't work, but in two of the patients the cancer seems to have completely disappeared. The findings are published in this week's issue of the journal Science. (Watch how treatment took dad down the aisle -- 3:06)

The finding has created excitement and hope among cancer experts. Dr. Philip Greenberg of the University of Washington School of Medicine called it "the beginning of a new chapter in treating cancer patients."

One of the patients in whom the treatment succeeded is Mark Origer from Watertown, Wisconsin.

He was first found to have melanoma in 1999 in a mole on his back. After surgery, it went away. But three years later the cancer came back. He tried many treatments but by 2004 nothing was working, and the cancer had spread to his liver.

"I was just pretty much devastated when I found out I did not respond," he says. "Right about that time my daughter got engaged and I knew there was going to be a wedding coming up, so there was concern. I wanted to be there."

Through online research, his wife found Rosenberg's clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and they went for an interview. Origer and 16 other patients were accepted.

First the doctors removed white blood cells called lymphocytes from the patients; the cells are the warriors of the immune system. The lymphocytes were paired with the virus that doctors had genetically engineered in the lab to seek out cancer tumors and attach to them. The hope was that the super-immune cells would destroy the tumors.

Once the immune cells had been genetically engineered, patients underwent chemotherapy to kill most of their original immune cells. Then the new juiced-up cells were infused back into the body and the patients were given a treatment called Interleukin 2, which strengthens the new immune system.

When veterans in the field of cancer, who have had their hopes dashed many times, talk of a study being the beginning of a new chapter in cancer treatment, it draws attention. And several prominent cancer researchers told CNN that this study is an important moment in treatment of the disease.

"This counts," says Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society. "It's early, but it's the beginning of a new approach."

The next step for Rosenberg is another clinical trial with potentially stronger gene therapy, and he expects to hear in the next few weeks whether the FDA has approved the trial. He acknowledges that much work lies ahead, but he believes that in the long run this approach will work on about half of all common cancers.

The extra months Mark Origer never expected to have have brought some amazing memories. Last September one of his dreams came true: He walked his daughter Katie down the aisle.

"It was a fantastic day," he says of the wedding. "It was a celebration, a celebration of life. It was the beginning of my daughter's life, her new life, and the beginning of my new life."

Christy Feig is a senior producer with the CNN Medical Unit.

Mark Origer's melanoma responded to a treatment in a clinical trial in which his own immune system was turned on his cancer.


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