Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that HIV would ever be described as a “miracle,” and yet it has. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are the front runners of this innovative procedure. A six year old girl suffering from leukemia with only 48 hours to live was the first candidate to undergo the therapy known as CTL019 and is now in remission. How incredible! The T-cell therapy used is quite intriguing but before one can understand the therapy mechanism, a brief background on HIV and cancer, in particular leukemia is helpful.
Simply stated, leukemia is cancer of one’s blood cells. A person’s bone marrow begins to produce abnormal white blood cells that continue to grow and overpopulate the normal, functioning cells. The leukemia cells will eventually cause anemia, infection, and can spread to one’s lymph nodes and/or organs. Since the diseased cells are located within the vascular system, it is very challenging to keep the disease from spreading throughout the body. Therapy and treatment options are available but do not always result in remission.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that leads to a suppressed immune system which in time disables the human body of fighting off disease or infection. The virus attacks the body’s helper T-cells which are responsible for sending signals to activate immune cells whose role is to destroy and kill an infection or virus. With low helper T-cell levels, the body is vulnerable to all types of diseases or infection and is unable to fight them off.
Understanding both leukemia and HIV, one can understand the phenomenon behind the CTL019 therapy. Researchers behind the clinical trial developed a disabled form of HIV to carry cancer-fighting genes into her T-cells. Once the “virus” was injected into her immune system, the re-programmed T-cells would recognize the cancer cells and begin to kill them. Flu-like symptoms were anticipated but her symptoms were more critical. She developed an ailment similar to rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and after receiving a drug that is used to treat RA, her status changed significantly for the better. After three weeks, the six year old was in remission. I never thought benefits would be reaped from such a devastating virus, but now there is hope for more advances to come in the future.