Immunotherapy cancer ‘cure’ headlines distract from fascinating science

The undoubted promise of cancer immunotherapy is never far from the headlines. And waking up this morning, we heard claims that a new immune therapy may offer hope of ‘lasting cures’ for cancer.

The news comes from a conference in Washington DC in the US. And while the science is extremely exciting, the media’s response has jumped the gun a little.

At the conference, researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle described how they’d taken specialised immune cells from patients with certain blood cancers, and re-engineered the cells in the lab to attack and kill cancer cells when injected back into the patient’s body. You can read all about the science behind this particular approach – called Chimaeric Antigen Receptor T-cells, or CAR T-cells – in this blog post.

The researchers also summarised the results of several small, early-stage clinical trials, where they’d begun seeing some impressive responses in some very sick patients. But these trial results are yet to be published in a scientific journal, so are still to be scrutinised by experts in the field.

Nevertheless, harnessing the power of the body’s own immune cells, and focussing their attack on cancer in this way, is a really promising area of research, and something our own researchers are working hard to perfect. And several immunotherapy drugs are already being used on the NHS, showing some incredible results in a certain groups of patients – as this article shows.

But as is often the case with media stories heralding potential cures for cancer, we also need to add a note of balance.

‘Extraordinary’ responses… but not cures

The early stage trials in today’s reports involved patients with different types of blood cancer – including acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, chronic lymphocyte leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. While these are often very treatable forms of cancer, the patients on these trials had diseases that had become resistant to all other treatments.

Many media reports focused on the patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, more than nine in 10 of whom are reported to have entered remission following the immune cell therapy.

The researchers are also reported to have seen similarly impressive responses in around half of patients with the other blood cancers too.

These are indeed truly impressive results.

But these responses – where patients see their symptoms disappear – don’t necessarily mean a patient has been cured. And without a scientific paper to back up the reports, we don’t yet have the full details on these responses rates – notably exactly how they were measured.

So once the data have been scrutinised and published, there will need to be longer-term follow-up before it’s clear if these patients get lasting benefits.

Lead researcher Professor Stanley Riddell has been widely quoted as calling the results ‘extraordinary’. But he has also made it clear that the results are in patients where all other treatments have failed. “The response is not always durable, some of these patients do relapse,” he said.

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