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.”
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
This article is republished from our archives to coincide with Blood Cancer Awareness Month, which highlights progress in cancer diagnostics and treatment.
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
Unwanted pregnancy can now be added to the list of preventions that antibodies may be fighting in the near future. For decades, really since the 1980s, engineered monoclonal antibodies have been knocking out invading germs — preventing everything from cancer to COVID. Sperm, which have some of the same properties as germs, may be next.
Not only is there an unmet need on the market for alternatives to hormonal contraceptives, the genesis for the original research was personal for the then 22-year-old scientist who led it. Her findings were used to launch a company that could, within the decade, bring a new kind of contraceptive to the marketplace.
It’s Suruchi Shrestha’s research — published in Science Translational Medicine in August 2021 and conducted as part of her dissertation while she was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — that could change the future of contraception for many women worldwide. According to a Guttmacher Institute report, in the U.S. alone, there were 46 million sexually active women of reproductive age (15–49) who did not want to get pregnant in 2018. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, Shrestha’s research could, indeed, be life changing for millions of American women and their families.
Now a scientist with NextVivo, Shrestha is not directly involved in the development of the contraceptive that is based on her research. But, back in 2016 when she was going through her own problems with hormonal contraceptives, she “was very personally invested” in her research project, Shrestha says. She was coping with a long list of negative effects from an implanted hormonal IUD. According to the Mayo Clinic, those can include severe pelvic pain, headaches, acute acne, breast tenderness, irregular bleeding and mood swings. After a year, she had the IUD removed, but it took another full year before all the side effects finally subsided; she also watched her sister suffer the “same tribulations” after trying a hormonal IUD, she says.
For contraceptive use either daily or monthly, Shrestha says, “You want the antibody to be very potent and also cheap.” That was her goal when she launched her study.
Shrestha unshelved antibody research that had been sitting idle for decades. It was in the late 80s that scientists in Japan first tried to develop anti-sperm antibodies for contraceptive use. But, 35 years ago, “Antibody production had not been streamlined as it is now, so antibodies were very expensive,” Shrestha explains. So, they shifted away from birth control, opting to focus on developing antibodies for vaccines.
Over the course of the last three decades, different teams of researchers have been working to make the antibody more effective, bringing the cost down, though it’s still expensive, according to Shrestha. For contraceptive use either daily or monthly, she says, “You want the antibody to be very potent and also cheap.” That was her goal when she launched her study.
The problem with contraceptives for women, Shrestha says, is that all but a few of them are hormone-based or have other negative side effects. In fact, some studies and reports show that millions of women risk unintended pregnancy because of medical contraindications with hormone-based contraceptives or to avoid the risks and side effects. While there are about a dozen contraceptive choices for women, there are two for men: the condom, considered 98% effective if used correctly, and vasectomy, 99% effective. Neither of these choices are hormone-based.
On the non-hormonal side for women, there is the diaphragm which is considered only 87 percent effective. It works better with the addition of spermicides — Nonoxynol-9, or N-9 — however, they are detergents; they not only kill the sperm, they also erode the vaginal epithelium. And, there’s the non-hormonal IUD which is 99% effective. However, the IUD needs to be inserted by a medical professional, and it has a number of negative side effects, including painful cramping at a higher frequency and extremely heavy or “abnormal” and unpredictable menstrual flows.
The hormonal version of the IUD, also considered 99% effective, is the one Shrestha used which caused her two years of pain. Of course, there’s the pill, which needs to be taken daily, and the birth control ring which is worn 24/7. Both cause side effects similar to the other hormonal contraceptives on the market. The ring is considered 93% effective mostly because of user error; the pill is considered 99% effective if taken correctly.
“That’s where we saw this opening or gap for women. We want a safe, non-hormonal contraceptive,” Shrestha says. Compounding the lack of good choices, is poor access to quality sex education and family planning information, according to the non-profit Urban Institute. A focus group survey suggested that the sex education women received “often lacked substance, leaving them feeling unprepared to make smart decisions about their sexual health and safety,” wrote the authors of the Urban Institute report. In fact, nearly half (45%, or 2.8 million) of the pregnancies that occur each year in the US are unintended, reports the Guttmacher Institute. Globally the numbers are similar. According to a new report by the United Nations, each year there are 121 million unintended pregnancies, worldwide.
The early work on antibodies as a contraceptive had been inspired by women with infertility. It turns out that 9 to 12 percent of women who are treated for infertility have antibodies that develop naturally and work against sperm. Shrestha was encouraged that the antibodies were specific to the target — sperm — and therefore “very safe to use in women.” She aimed to make the antibodies more stable, more effective and less expensive so they could be more easily manufactured.
Since antibodies tend to stick to things that you tell them to stick to, the idea was, basically, to engineer antibodies to stick to sperm so they would stop swimming. Shrestha and her colleagues took the binding arm of an antibody that they’d isolated from an infertile woman. Then, targeting a unique surface antigen present on human sperm, they engineered a panel of antibodies with as many as six to 10 binding arms — “almost like tongs with prongs on the tongs, that bind the sperm,” explains Shrestha. “We decided to add those grabbers on top of it, behind it. So it went from having two prongs to almost 10. And the whole goal was to have so many arms binding the sperm that it clumps it” into a “dollop,” explains Shrestha, who earned a patent on her research.
Suruchi Shrestha works in the lab with a colleague. In 2016, her research on antibodies for birth control was inspired by her own experience with side effects from an implanted hormonal IUD.
UNC - Chapel Hill
The sperm stays right where it met the antibody, never reaching the egg for fertilization. Eventually, and naturally, “Our vaginal system will just flush it out,” Shrestha explains.
“She showed in her early studies that [she] definitely got the sperm immotile, so they didn't move. And that was a really promising start,” says Jasmine Edelstein, a scientist with an expertise in antibody engineering who was not involved in this research. Shrestha’s team at UNC reproduced the effect in the sheep, notes Edelstein, who works at the startup Be Biopharma. In fact, Shrestha’s anti-sperm antibodies that caused the sperm to agglutinate, or clump together, were 99.9% effective when delivered topically to the sheep’s reproductive tracts.
Going forward, Shrestha thinks the ideal approach would be delivering the antibodies through a vaginal ring. “We want to use it at the source of the spark,” Shrestha says, as opposed to less direct methods, such as taking a pill. The ring would dissolve after one month, she explains, “and then you get another one.”
Engineered to have a long shelf life, the anti-sperm antibody ring could be purchased without a prescription, and women could insert it themselves, without a doctor. “That's our hope, so that it is accessible,” Shrestha says. “Anybody can just go and grab it and not worry about pregnancy or unintended pregnancy.”
Her patented research has been licensed by several biotech companies for clinical trials. A number of Shrestha’s co-authors, including her lab advisor, Sam Lai, have launched a company, Mucommune, to continue developing the contraceptives based on these antibodies.
And, results from a small clinical trial run by researchers at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine show that a dissolvable vaginal film with antibodies was safe when tested on healthy women of reproductive age. That same group of researchers last year received a $7.2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for further research on monoclonal antibody-based contraceptives, which have also been shown to block transmission of viruses, like HIV.
“As the costs come down, this becomes a more realistic option potentially for women,” says Edelstein. “The impact could be tremendous.”
This article was first published by Leaps.org in December, 2022. It has been lightly edited with updates for timeliness.