Cancer is a hard collection of diseases to cure, because it is basically the cells of the body that are attacking itself, and the immune system is not supposed to attack cells that it recognises as belonging to the body.
The immune system has a group of cells called “T-cells”, which train themselves throughout your life to try to recognise invaders. However, cancer can look so similar to normal cells that the T-cells cannot differentiate them.
In the early 80s, a scientist had the idea of removing some T-cells, training them specially to attack cancer cells, and re-injecting them back into the body.
Recently, it has been found that this works very well. Some early trials resulted in illness and death, mostly due to inflammation caused by cytokine release from the T-cells as they did their job, but since those trials, scientists have learned to manage the side-effects.
In a recent trial, 83% of patients went into remission, with 64% still in remission a year later. The trial was not properly scientific, because it did not include a control group (people that do not receive the real treatment, in order to have numbers to compare the treatment against), but the results were still so stunning that a group of experts recommended unanimously to the FDA that the treatment should be immediately certified for public use.
After the treatment, the treated T-cells remember their training for at least six months, so if there is any remission in that time, they will spring back into action and destroy the fledgling cancer cells. And because one treated T-cell can kill 10,000 cancer cells, it doesn’t take a lot to cure the disease.
At the moment, the cost for T-cell treatment is almost half a million US dollars, but this is bound to shrink rapidly as the treatment becomes more and more popular. Also, the solution is being rolled out specifically to younger people with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia whose other treatments have failed, so it may be some time before it is available to everyone else. Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is a cancer which attacks the immune system itself, making it one of the deadliest cancers around.
If this new treatment works as expected, we will have crossed an important threshold in the fight against cancer, taking one step closer to learning to live forever.