By Ross Walker

One of the worst moments in anyone’s life is when they are given a cancer diagnosis. Many people perceive this as a death sentence, but, thanks to the collective work of extraordinary scientists around the globe, it appears we are not too far from a cure to this, at times, devastating disease.

Already, many forms of cancer have been cured by early detection, surgical removal, with or without chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

The next wave of therapy which has been well studied, especially over the past decade, is immunotherapy.  This is, basically revamping the immune system of the individual to attack and kill rogue cancer cells. Recently we heard how President Jimmy Carter had his secondary brain tumours from a melanoma melted away with a monoclonal antibody Keytruda. The prominent Melbourne businessman, Ron Walker, had the same response to Keytruda.

These new monoclonal antibodies work by breading down the shields cancer cells create to make them invisible to the  immune system. But, last week, two exciting new studies were released at a conference in Washington using a different form of immunotherapy making a modification of the person’s own immune system.

The first study took 35 patients with end-stage, high dose chemotherapy resistant patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.  

Doctors had estimated all of these patients had somewhere between two to five months to live. They removed the patient’s own specific immune cells, known as killer T-cells and in the laboratory attached a protein called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) which basically has two sticky ends – one attaching to the killer T-cell and the other, the tumour cell. This then allowed the killer T-cell to bind to the tumour cell and do its stuff, i.e. targeted killing of the cancer cell. These people only required one treatment.

Over 90% of these patients remain cancer free eighteen months later. Seven out of the 35 did develop a serious complication of this treatment known as cytokine release syndrome or cytokine storm, requiring admission to intensive care and two patients did die from this condition. But, regardless, all 35 were terminal and most still remain cancer free eighteen months later.

In another study, 40 patients with non-Hodgkins lymphoma or chronic lymphocytic leukaemia were given the same treatment and more than 80% responded and 50% remain in complete remission after eighteen months.

Until now this response was unheard of in terminal cancer patients. Separate research from Milan, Italy has demonstrated that these administered modified T-cells can still be detected in the blood stream up to fourteen years after one treatment administration.

The researchers are calling these new killer T-cells – living drugs, because it appears the benefits keep happening well beyond the once only administration.

I believe these modern advances in cancer therapies are a major breakthrough and at some stage in the near future we may see the current carnage from cancer purely part of medical history.