In 2015, in a global medical premiere, children treated with T-cells coming from a different person have been cured of cancer.

Layla with her mum Lisa, dad Ashleigh and sister Reya. Image via Great Ormond Street Hospital

The British infants, ages 11 and 16 months, each had leukemia and had undergone previous treatments that failed. Chemo didn’t work, a bone marrow transplant didn’t work. It almost seemed hopeless, but not to the children’s parents. They pushed and risked until they were given another option. Doctors from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital tried something else, something no one else had done before. They used T-cells, a type of lymphocytes in our immune system, and injected them into the babies, to attack the cancerous cells. The treatment worked much better than expected, and the so-called “designer immune cells” cured the two infants almost miraculously.

At that point, Prof Waseem Qasim, from Great Ormond Street, stated:

“This is the first time human cells, engineered in this particular way, have been given back to a patient and that was a big step for us. The technology is moving very fast, the ability to target very specific regions of the genome have suddenly become much more efficient and we think that this technology will be the next phase of treatments. “The technology itself has got enormous potential to correct other conditions where cells are engineered and given back to patients or to provide new properties to cells that allow them to be used in a way we can only imagine at the moment.”

The babies are doing fine and they’re still cancer-free, but the technology hasn’t developed too much in the past year — or at least not much was made public.

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The idea of using T-cells isn’t necessarily new, but previous attempts used T-cells harvested from the host. Several private companies have invested heavily into developing techniques of harvesting T-cells from the host and then re-injecting them after engineering — but having them from another person provides some very strong benefits. Basically, doctors could pre-harvest the designer cells and have them readily available, injecting them in a moment’s notice. This would not only save critical time, but the entire process could become cheaper and more efficient in advance, instead of doing it on a per-patient basis. Thus, the price would go down, availability would increase, and the whole thing would move on faster. Also, not all patients are able to offer the required T-cells.

But not everyone is convinced. Some say there’s simply not enough proof that the technology actually worked.

“There is a hint of efficacy but no proof,” says Stephan Grupp, director of cancer immunotherapy at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who collaborates with Novartis. “It would be great if it works, but that just hasn’t been shown yet.”

The doctors who performed the treatment are still confident, though they two acknowledge that a two-patient sample size is not truly enough to generalize the method.

“This application of an emerging technology has provided a demonstration of the potential of gene-editing strategies for engineered cell therapies, albeit with a clinical experience limited to two infants,” the team from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital writes.

But no matter how you look at it, this is exciting. It’s been two years, and the children are still safe from cancer. Furthermore, several companies and research institutes are looking at ways to improve on this treatment. We’re still not there

“We’re in a wonderful place compared to where we were five months ago, but that doesn’t mean cure,” team member Paul Veys from University College London told the BBC back in 2015.

“The only way we will find out if this is a cure is by waiting that one or two years, but even having got this far from where we were is a major, major step.”

Genetical engineering is starting to deliver, and if that means new ways to deal with cancer then we couldn’t be happier.

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