Designer T cells emerge as weapons against disease

Attempts to boost the immune system against cancer are beginning to pay off

2:37pm, May 30, 2014
T cells attack a cancer cell

T-FORCE  Two T cells (orange) attack a cancer cell (blue), using special receptors to zero in on the cancer. Immunotherapies are boosting the potency of T cells.

Doug Olson had all but lost his 14-year battle with leukemia. Exhausted and weakened by chemotherapy, his body no longer responded to any of the handful of drug treatments he had been given over the years. In 2010, his doctors suggested a different strategy: beefing up the disease-fighting immune cells in his body.

Researchers picked out certain immune cells from Olson’s blood, then inserted a virus into the cells. The virus provided new genes that prompt the cells, known as T cells, to attack leukemia cells. When the altered T cells were delivered back into Olson’s veins, his immune system became a cancer-seeking weapon.

One month after treatment, Olson was in complete remission. His doctors could find no sign of cancer in his blood or bone marrow. Today, at age 67, he remains cancer-free. Recently retired, Olson says he no longer worries about how long his remission will last; he’s taken up sailing and running half-marathons.

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