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Experimental approach to treating pancreatic cancer heralded as a success

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  • Chamberlain

An experimental treatment appears to have been successful in halting the progression of one woman's advanced pancreatic cancer, doctors reported Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The apparent success of the therapy — which involves tweaking the genes of immune cells so that they attack tumor cells — could be a major step forward in the treatment of not only pancreatic cancer, but other cancers as well.

“I’m really excited about this,” said Dr. Carl June, who more than a decade ago pioneered a different type of immune therapy for certain blood cancers. June was not involved with the new report.

Kathy Wilkes, 71, of Ormond Beach, Florida, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2018. She initially underwent at least eight rounds of chemotherapy, as well as radiation and an operation called a Whipple procedure to remove part of her pancreas.

Within a year, however, the cancer had spread to her lungs.

“When I talked to my hometown oncologist and asked him what to do, he only had one answer, and that was chemotherapy. And I said, ‘That’s not my answer,’” Wilkes told NBC News.

She found a 2016 case report, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, that detailed how a person with advanced colon cancer had been helped by an experimental type of gene therapy targeting a cancer mutation called KRAS G12D.

“I thought, 'That is the trial I want.' I knew that that was the trial that was going to save me, save my life. I just had that feeling,” Wilkes said.

With that in mind, she reached out to the author of the report, Eric Tran. Tran was at the National Institutes of Health when he treated the colon cancer patient, but had since moved on to the Providence Cancer Institute in Portland, Oregon. That’s where Wilkes found him and inquired about undergoing the same type of therapy.

It turned out that Wilkes had the same genetic mutation as the colon cancer patient, despite having different forms of cancer. Tran, who was involved with her therapy, was also an author of the latest New England Journal report.

The experimental approach involved taking a sample of Wilkes' T cells, a type of immune cell that attacks invaders in the body. Scientists then genetically modified these cells, reprogramming them to recognize and attack tumor cells.

The T cells were then multiplied billions of times in a lab, before being delivered back in Wilkes' body via a single intravenous infusion.

The approach is reminiscent of CAR-T therapy, the form of treatment developed by June at the University of Pennsylvania.

“This is potentially a one-and-done treatment,” Dr. Rom Leidner, a co-author of the new report and co-director of the head and neck cancer therapy program at the Providence Cancer Institute, said of the new therapy.

Wilkes' infusion was on June 14, 2021. Within a month, the tumors in her lungs shrank by more than half, the report found. Six months later, the tumors were reduced by 72 percent of their original size.

It is unclear how long the treatment may last, however.



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