Medicine

Why Curing These Infants' Leukemia Could Mean A Cure For Thousands More

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In 2017, it was a medical first: doctors in London announced that they may have cured leukemia in two babies using genetically engineered immune cells from another person's blood. This could mean big things for the cost and convenience of future cancer therapies.

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Changing The Game

This isn't the first time engineered immune cells, called T-cells, have been used to treat, or even cure, blood cancers. This T-cell therapy is called CAR-T, and it's been studied for a number of years already. But in the past, those cells have always come from the patient. That requires a logistical headache, not to mention a medical risk: the patients have to wait while their blood is shipped to a biotech company—sometimes overseas—modified, then shipped back. Still, they work surprisingly well, permanently curing roughly half of patients.

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Doing the same thing with someone else's blood opens the possibility for a universal cure that's faster and less expensive than personalized treatments. Patients could get the treatment immediately at a fraction of the price: according to the MIT Technology Review, one dose could be around $4,000 instead of the $50,000 it takes to alter a patient's own cells.

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What's The Catch?

We're not sure it works. It's true that the two babies were cured of leukemia, but because doctors also treated them with chemotherapy, scientists can't be positive that it was the engineered T-cells and not the chemo that finally vanquished the cancer. "There is a hint of efficacy but no proof," Stephan Grupp, director of cancer immunotherapy at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, told the MIT Technology Review. "It would be great if it works, but that just hasn't been shown yet." Like most things in science, it'll take a few more years to determine how big of a breakthrough this really is.

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