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.”
This article was first published on Leaps.org on March 24, 2022.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”