New Study Shows “Living Drug” Can Provide a Lasting Cure for Cancer
Doug Olson was 49 when he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a blood cancer that strikes 21,000 Americans annually. Although the disease kills most patients within a decade, Olson’s case progressed more slowly, and courses of mild chemotherapy kept him healthy for 13 years. Then, when he was 62, the medication stopped working. The cancer had mutated, his doctor explained, becoming resistant to standard remedies. Harsher forms of chemo might buy him a few months, but their side effects would be debilitating. It was time to consider the treatment of last resort: a bone-marrow transplant.
Olson, a scientist who developed blood-testing instruments, knew the odds. There was only a 50 percent chance that a transplant would cure him. There was a 20 percent chance that the agonizing procedure—which involves destroying the patient’s marrow with chemo and radiation, then infusing his blood with donated stem cells—would kill him. If he survived, he would face the danger of graft-versus-host disease, in which the donor’s cells attack the recipient’s tissues. To prevent it, he would have to take immunosuppressant drugs, increasing the risk of infections. He could end up with pneumonia if one of his three grandchildren caught a sniffle. “I was being pushed into a corner,” Olson recalls, “with very little room to move.”
Soon afterward, however, his doctor revealed a possible escape route. He and some colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center were starting a clinical trial, he said, and Olson—still mostly symptom-free—might be a good candidate. The experimental treatment, known as CAR-T therapy, would use genetic engineering to turn his T lymphocytes (immune cells that guard against viruses and other pathogens) into a weapon against cancer.
In September 2010, technicians took some of Olson’s T cells to a laboratory, where they were programmed with new molecular marching orders and coaxed to multiply into an army of millions. When they were ready, a nurse inserted a catheter into his neck. At the turn of a valve, his soldiers returned home, ready to do battle.
“I felt like I’d won the lottery,” Olson says. But he was only the second person in the world to receive this “living drug,” as the University of Pennsylvania investigators called it. No one knew how long his remission would last.
Three weeks later, Olson was slammed with a 102-degree fever, nausea, and chills. The treatment had triggered two dangerous complications: cytokine release syndrome, in which immune chemicals inflame the patient’s tissues, and tumor lysis syndrome, in which toxins from dying cancer cells overwhelm the kidneys. But the crisis passed quickly, and the CAR-T cells fought on. A month after the infusion, the doctor delivered astounding news: “We can’t find any cancer in your body.”
“I felt like I’d won the lottery,” Olson says. But he was only the second person in the world to receive this “living drug,” as the University of Pennsylvania investigators called it. No one knew how long his remission would last.
An Unexpected Cure
In February 2022, the same cancer researchers reported a remarkable milestone: the trial’s first two patients had survived for more than a decade. Although Olson’s predecessor—a retired corrections officer named Bill Ludwig—died of COVID-19 complications in early 2021, both men had remained cancer-free. And the modified immune cells continued to patrol their territory, ready to kill suspected tumor cells the moment they arose.
“We can now conclude that CAR-T cells can actually cure patients with leukemia,” University of Pennsylvania immunologist Carl June, who spearheaded the development of the technique, told reporters. “We thought the cells would be gone in a month or two. The fact that they’ve survived 10 years is a major surprise.”
Even before the announcement, it was clear that CAR-T therapy could win a lasting reprieve for many patients with cancers that were once a death sentence. Since the Food and Drug Administration approved June’s version (marketed as Kymriah) in 2017, the agency has greenlighted five more such treatments for various types of leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma. “Every single day, I take care of patients who would previously have been told they had no options,” says Rayne Rouce, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Texas Children’s Cancer Center. “Now we not only have a treatment option for those patients, but one that could potentially be the last therapy for their cancer that they’ll ever have to receive.”
Immunologist Carl June, middle, spearheaded development of the CAR-T therapy that gave patients Bill Ludwig, left, and Doug Olson, right, a lengthy reprieve on their terminal cancer diagnoses.
Yet the CAR-T approach doesn’t help everyone. So far, it has only shown success for blood cancers—and for those, the overall remission rate is 30 to 40 percent. “When it works, it works extraordinarily well,” says Olson’s former doctor, David Porter, director of Penn’s blood and bone marrow transplant program. “It’s important to know why it works, but it’s equally important to know why it doesn’t—and how we can fix that.”
The team’s study, published in the journal Nature, offers a wealth of data on what worked for these two patients. It may also hold clues for how to make the therapy effective for more people.
Building a Better T Cell
Carl June didn’t set out to cure cancer, but his serendipitous career path—and a personal tragedy—helped him achieve insights that had eluded other researchers. In 1971, hoping to avoid combat in Vietnam, he applied to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. June showed a knack for biology, so the Navy sent him on to Baylor College of Medicine. He fell in love with immunology during a fellowship researching malaria vaccines in Switzerland. Later, the Navy deployed him to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to study bone marrow transplantation.
There, June became part of the first research team to learn how to culture T cells efficiently in a lab. After moving on to the National Naval Medical Center in the ’80s, he used that knowledge to combat the newly emerging AIDS epidemic. HIV, the virus that causes the disease, invades T cells and eventually destroys them. June and his post-doc Bruce Levine developed a method to restore patients’ depleted cell populations, using tiny magnetic beads to deliver growth-stimulating proteins. Infused into the body, the new T cells effectively boosted immune function.
In 1999, after leaving the Navy, June joined the University of Pennsylvania. His wife, who’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, died two years later, leaving three young children. “I had not known what it was like to be on the other side of the bed,” he recalls. Watching her suffer through grueling but futile chemotherapy, followed by an unsuccessful bone-marrow transplant, he resolved to focus on finding better cancer treatments. He started with leukemia—a family of diseases in which mutant white blood cells proliferate in the marrow.
Cancer is highly skilled at slipping through the immune system’s defenses. T cells, for example, detect pathogens by latching onto them with receptors designed to recognize foreign proteins. Leukemia cells evade detection, in part, by masquerading as normal white blood cells—that is, as part of the immune system itself.
June planned to use a viral vector no one had tried before: HIV.
To June, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells looked like a promising tool for unmasking and destroying the impostors. Developed in the early ’90s, these cells could be programmed to identify a target protein, and to kill any pathogen that displayed it. To do the programming, you spliced together snippets of DNA and inserted them into a disabled virus. Next, you removed some of the patient’s T cells and infected them with the virus, which genetically hijacked its new hosts—instructing them to find and slay the patient’s particular type of cancer cells. When the T cells multiplied, their descendants carried the new genetic code. You then infused those modified cells into the patient, where they went to war against their designated enemy.
Or that’s what happened in theory. Many scientists had tried to develop therapies using CAR-T cells, but none had succeeded. Although the technique worked in lab animals, the cells either died out or lost their potency in humans.
But June had the advantage of his years nurturing T cells for AIDS patients, as well as the technology he’d developed with Levine (who’d followed him to Penn with other team members). He also planned to use a viral vector no one had tried before: HIV, which had evolved to thrive in human T cells and could be altered to avoid causing disease. By the summer of 2010, he was ready to test CAR-T therapy against chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), the most common form of the disease in adults.
Three patients signed up for the trial, including Doug Olson and Bill Ludwig. A portion of each man’s T cells were reprogrammed to detect a protein found only on B lymphocytes, the type of white blood cells affected by CLL. Their genetic instructions ordered them to destroy any cell carrying the protein, known as CD19, and to multiply whenever they encountered one. This meant the patients would forfeit all their B cells, not just cancerous ones—but regular injections of gamma globulins (a cocktail of antibodies) would make up for the loss.
After being infused with the CAR-T cells, all three men suffered high fevers and potentially life-threatening inflammation, but all pulled through without lasting damage. The third patient experienced a partial remission and survived for eight months. Olson and Ludwig were cured.
Learning What Works
Since those first infusions, researchers have developed reliable ways to prevent or treat the side effects of CAR-T therapy, greatly reducing its risks. They’ve also been experimenting with combination therapies—pairing CAR-T with chemo, cancer vaccines, and immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors—to improve its success rate. But CAR-T cells are still ineffective for at least 60 percent of blood cancer patients. And they remain in the experimental stage for solid tumors (including pancreatic cancer, mesothelioma, and glioblastoma), whose greater complexity make them harder to attack.
The new Nature study offers clues that could fuel further advances. The Penn team “profiled these cells at a level where we can almost say, ‘These are the characteristics that a T cell would need to survive 10 years,’” says Rouce, the physician at Texas Children’s Cancer Center.
One surprising finding involves how CAR-T cells change in the body over time. At first, those that Olson and Ludwig received showed the hallmarks of “killer” T-cells (also known as CD8 cells)—highly active lymphocytes bent on exterminating every tumor cell in sight. After several months, however, the population shifted toward “helper” T-cells (or CD4s), which aid in forming long-term immune memory but are normally incapable of direct aggression. Over the years, the numbers swung back and forth, until only helper cells remained. Those cells showed markers suggesting they were too exhausted to function—but in the lab, they were able not only to recognize but to destroy cancer cells.
June and his team suspect that those tired-looking helper cells had enough oomph to kill off any B cells Olson and Ludwig made, keeping the pair’s cancers permanently at bay. If so, that could prompt new approaches to selecting cells for CAR-T therapy. Maybe starting with a mix of cell types—not only CD8s, but CD4s and other varieties—would work better than using CD8s alone. Or perhaps inducing changes in cell populations at different times would help.
Another potential avenue for improvement is starting with healthier cells. Evidence from this and other trials hints that patients whose T cells are more robust to begin with respond better when their cells are used in CAR-T therapy. The Penn team recently completed a clinical trial in which CLL patients were treated with ibrutinib—a drug that enhances T-cell function—before their CAR-T cells were manufactured. The response rate, says David Porter, was “very high,” with most patients remaining cancer-free a year after being infused with the souped-up cells.
Such approaches, he adds, are essential to achieving the next phase in CAR-T therapy: “Getting it to work not just in more people, but in everybody.”
Doug Olson enjoys nature - and having a future.
To grasp what that could mean, it helps to talk with Doug Olson, who’s now 75. In the years since his infusion, he has watched his four children forge careers, and his grandkids reach their teens. He has built a business and enjoyed the rewards of semi-retirement. He’s done volunteer and advocacy work for cancer patients, run half-marathons, sailed the Caribbean, and ridden his bike along the sun-dappled roads of Silicon Valley, his current home.
And in his spare moments, he has just sat there feeling grateful. “You don’t really appreciate the effect of having a lethal disease until it’s not there anymore,” he says. “The world looks different when you have a future.”
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization—by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.