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Patients’ own cells spur cancer remission

Nine leukemia patients are cancer-free after being treated with genetically-altered versions of their own immune cells, giving strength to a promising new approach for treating the blood cancer.

The trial of 12 patients, two of them children, bolsters findings from 2011. Then, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia reported that two of the first three patients treated showed no traces of the malignancy after getting the therapy.

The results were presented Sunday at the American Society of Hematology’s annual meeting in Atlanta.

For Walter Keller, 59, who had failed every other treatment for his chronic lymphocytic leukemia diagnosed in 1996, the regimen meant he’s been in remission since his treatment in April. Before the therapy, “I thought I had a year to live,” he said.

“I feel better than I have in a long, long time,” said Keller, of Upland, Calif., in a telephone interview. “I’m excited because I think this will help a lot of people.”

The approach developed by University of Pennsylvania scientists has since been acquired by Novartis.

The scientists, led by Carl June, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Abramson Cancer Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a study author, used genetic engineering to manipulate white blood cells extracted from the patients.

The researchers reprogrammed the cells to specifically target the leukemia cells and reinjected them into the patients.

CLL is a slow-growing cancer that starts from white blood cells in the bone marrow and interferes with the production of healthy blood cells. The condition leads to complications such as immune deficiencies and swollen lymph nodes. The disease strikes about 16,000 adults each year and 4,600 die from it, according to the American Cancer Society.

The disease is treated with chemotherapy. Another approach is bone marrow transplant in which chemotherapy is first given to kill diseased cells then replaced with healthy ones from bone marrow.

The research was funded by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy and the National Institutes of Health.

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