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Leukemia Cure Raises Inspiring Questions After Resolving Blood Cancer

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Doug Olson, survivor of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, in December 2021, 10 years after being cured. | Image from Olson family via The New York Times

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In 2010, Doug Olson became Cured Patient No. 1 after battling Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), a type of blood cancer, through a trial called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-Cell Therapy.

University of Pennsylvania (Penn Medicine) Hematologist-Oncologist Dr. David L. Porter made Olson aware of the unprecedented plan of care as a treatment option.

The treatment outcome is astonishing, even to oncologists. 

CAR T-Cell Therapy involves the removal of T-cells from the bloodstream. T-cells are white blood cells called lymphocytes that fight off viruses and diseases. Once removed, the T-cells are genetically re-engineered to fight cancer by modifying two crucial types of white blood cells, CD4s and CD8s.

CD4 cells are infection fighters.  CD8 cells are cancer assassins (they also execute other cellular invaders).

The pair of cellular commandos are placed back into the body via an intravenous (IV) method to target a protein found on the surface of cancer cells.

CAR T-Cell Therapy had been triumphant in treating acute leukemia and other blood cancers; however, sufferers of CLL previously captured limited success as their variant of blood cancer tended to return over time, even after remission. 

During the trial, modified CD8 cells quickly killed between 3.5 to 7 pounds of cancer cells within Olson.

The same result happened within William Ludwig, Patient No. 1 for CAR T-Cell Trial Therapy; Ludwig, unfortunately, died from COVID complications in 2021.

Principal Trial Investigator Dr. Carl June and many other physicians were initially skeptical, realizing that the study was deemed “way out there.”

Dr. June thought the modified cells would only survive a couple of months.

Fast forward twelve years later – CAR T-Cell Therapy is baffling its proponents, in a wonderful way.

Dr. June and colleagues published findings that indicate CLL was wiped out within two out of three patients (Olson and another) due to CAR T-Cell Therapy.

That news positively surprised the doctors. However, there is mystery lingering beyond this unequivocal CLL remedy. 

According to the report, CAR T-cells are still detected more than ten years after being infused during remission times.

Even better, a high volume of CD4 cells is observed within Olson. His cancer has resolved.

The best surprise of all? CD8 cells have remained within his bloodstream and, mysteriously, converted themselves into CD4 cells that behave like soldiers, resisting cancer development in perpetuity. 

Two questions are now raised from these findings. Why are the soldier cells surveilling when cancer is gone? Or, is cancer still present, but undetected, and randomly appearing – activating offense and defense strategy from the soldier cells?

Mystified, Dr. June expressed, “We can’t find any leukemia cells in Doug. The leukemia is gone, but [the soldier cells] stay on the job.” 

Dr. Porter added of the phenomena within his patient: “Olson’s results are beyond my wildest imagination. Oncologists don’t use words like ‘cure’ lightly or easily or, frankly, very often. I guarantee that it’s not being used lightly. The patients we treated had far-advanced disease.”

Although Olson has remained CLL-cured of the aggressive cancer for over a decade now, can that cure be possible for others?

Genentech Vice President of Cancer Immunology Ira Mellman believes “Cellular-based cancer therapies are probably the therapy of the future.”

Researchers wonder if CAR T-Cell Therapy could work for “solid cancers” that disease and destroy the bladder, breasts, the colon, the lungs, and the prostate.

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