In class we discussed whether or not all viruses are “bad”. As evil and devastating as the AIDS epidemic has been in the last 30 years, the virus behind AIDS, HIV has unique properties that have enable it to be a basis for treatment in fighting what would be otherwise fatal leukemia. Dr. Carl June laments, “It’s hard to think that you might actually succeed” in curing cancer in a short video-- “Fight Fire with Fire”-- in which Dr. June leads a team that to treat Emma, a seven-year old girl who had twice recurring leukemia, and the parents were looking for a miracle. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjWKGFzJe5c)
University of Pennsylvania doctors, Carl June and Daniel Porter, collected Emma’s T-cells and genetically-engineered them with a deactivated HIV virus and replaced the engineered cells so that the immune system would then be able to recognize and kill tumor cells. HIV is a retrovirus, unique in that it has the ability to integrate part of it’s own genome into host cells. The virus has been engineered so that it can’t cause disease, but it retains the ability to “program” the immune system.
These “serial killer cells” each can kill more than 1000 different tumor cell. Patients react differently to new cancer treatment, and the doctors don’t know if it will work with everyone with this type of leukemia. However, in Emma’s case, within a few days of T-cell treatment she was very sick and we knew she couldn’t get any sicker without dying, but then the T-cells were growing and started to fight the cancer and within hours and she woke up with no leukemia.
The roots of this treatment were established in 2006 as a man who was HIV-positive and had acute myeloid leukemia. The patient received a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a rare genetic mutation and both HIV and the cancer were cured. Dr. June has looked into this connection for years and published many works (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=June+CH+%5Bau%5D)
The treatment remains very experimental but represents a now very accepted notion that the immune system can play a large part in killing cancer cells. While the HIV-based treatment is only used as a last resort option with patients with this a rare type of leukemia, and several other patients at Penn have been successfully treated. Nonetheless it leaves a promising new avenue of research and therapy in the future for not only leukemia but other types of cancer as well.
--Will St. Amant