"This is still an experimental therapy," Brentjens said. "But it's a promising therapy."
In the United States, close to 6,100 people will be diagnosed with ALL this year, and more than 1,400 will die, according to the National Cancer Institute. ALL most often arises in children, but adults account for about three-quarters of deaths.
Most cases of ALL are the B-cell form, and Brentjens said about 30 percent of adult patients are cured. When the cancer recurs, patients have a shot at long-term survival if they can get a bone marrow transplant. But if their cancer resists the pre-transplant chemo, the outlook is grim, Brentjens said.
Adoptive T-cell therapy is a form of immunotherapy, a promising type of treatment which uses the patient's own immune system to battle tumors.
For now, the T-cell therapy is being studied as a "bridge" to a bone marrow transplant for these ALL patients. But Brentjens said the ultimate hope is to use it as an "up-front" therapy, along with chemotherapy, to help prevent ALL recurrences in the first place.
This is the first published study to test the T-cell therapy against adult ALL, but researchers have already studied it in some patients with advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), which mainly affects older adults.
Dr. David Porter, a University of Pennsylvania researcher involved in the work on CLL, called the results in these five ALL patients "remarkable."
Porter, director of blood and marrow transplantation at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center, agreed that one of the questions for the future will be whether the T- cell therapy can be used earlier in ALL treatment. "But we're a long way off from that right now," Porter stressed.
"This is very early in development," he said. "We are just starting to learn about the short-term side effects, and we don't know about the long-term effectiveness or safety."
One question is whethe
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