New treatment uses genetically modified cells to fight tumors

In 2016, 10th grade student Sally Naser learned she had a cancerous growth on both her lungs. She had first been diagnosed with a tumor, a type of bone cancer called sarcoma, at age 10. This was her third relapse.

“One of the doctors advice was, ‘I think now’s a good time to take a family vacation,'” said Camille Naser, her mother. “We said and Sally said, we weren’t quite ready to give up.”

There was one last option. Sally joined a trial at Baylor College of Medicine using a therapy called CAR T. First, doctors removed some of Sally’s T-cells, infection fighting white blood cells, and genetically modified them to recognize her sarcoma cancer as being enemy cells that should be destroyed. Millions of those new cells were then put back in Sally’s body, ready to search out and destroy the cancer.

“It just took 20 minutes and they’re like, alright, that’s it,” Sally Naser said.

Of 10 patients, three have stable disease and two, including Naser, have no evidence of cancer. Two CAR T therapies are already FDA approved for forms of leukemia and lymphoma. The next hurdle is proving it works on solid tumors like lung, colon and sarcoma.

“Solid tumors, many of which are very, very difficult to treat, represent a huge burden of cancer and morbidity and mortality,” said Dr. Louis Weiner, with the American Association for Cancer Research.

Naser is now a freshman at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“This is the longest that it’s been ever without a recurrence,” she said. “That gives me hope that you know, the treatment actually worked.”

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