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New Therapy Turns Ordinary White Blood Cells Into Cancer Killers

December 5, 1985 GMT

BOSTON (AP) _ An experimental cancer treatment that transforms white blood cells into killer cells to attack malignant tumors ″represents the first new kind of approach to cancer in perhaps 20 or 30 years,″ the director of the research project said today.

The first human use of the technique, called adoptive immunotherapy, was reported by the cancer institute in today’s New England Journal of Medicine.

The therapy offers ″the most promising biological approach to cancer at the present time,″ said Dr. Vincent T. DeVita Jr., director of the National Cancer Institute, which was deluged today with calls from people seeking the therapy.


It attempts to take advantage of the body’s immune system to react against the cancer, said research project director Dr. Steven Rosenberg, interviewed today on NBC’s ″Today″ show.

The procedure uses interleukin-2, a natural hormone of the immune system, to transform ordinary white blood cells into ″killer cells″ capable of attacking cancer, Rosenberg said. These cells are treated outside the body and then injected into the patient, where they attack cancerous tumors throughout the body.

″It clearly is producing a fairly dramatic effect in people with advanced cancer. We don’t know that it cures anybody. But if applied widely to people with small amounts of disease, it holds promise for significant improvement,″ DiVita said.

In 11 of 25 patients with advanced cancer, the doctors were able to shrink tumors by at least 50 percent and, in one case, apparently eradicate the disease.

Researchers caution, however, that the treatment is still highly experimental and carries toxic side effects. Compared with other kinds of cancer treatment, it is also very expensive. At present, it is available only at the cancer institute in Bethesda, Md., where it’s being tested on small numbers of patients.

″This is really the first step,″ said Rosenberg, of the cancer institute. ″But it demonstrates that it is possible to manipulate the immune system and make a variety of cancers in a variety of locations disappear.″

He said the experimental program can treat only about eight patients a month at present, though ″we get several hundred inquiries a day.″ Studies of the treatment should begin at other research hospitals in the next several months, he said.

The institute was flooded with calls today from people desperate for treatment. ″Our 800 (toll free) numbers are jammed this morning,″ said Paul Van Nevel, associate director for communications. ″It always happens when there’s some kind of a treatment advance.″

Said Carol Case, chief of public inquiries for the cancer institute, who handled dozens of calls today: ″What they’re saying is our mother, our brother, our sister is dying at this very moment. We have nothing to lose. We want to be a candidate.″

Rosenberg was a consultant on the surgical team that operated on President Reagan last summer. It was he who stirred the nation with the announcement July 15 that ″the president has cancer.″ The cancerous colon tumor was removed.

At the American Cancer Society, Dr. Frank Rauscher called the development ″very, very exciting.″

″In these tumors,″ he said, ″when you can get a 50 percent or more response rate, that’s better than any cytotoxic (cell-killing) drug that we’ve ever seen.″

However, Dr. Robert Mayer of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston cautioned that although the research is worth pursuing, ″I would be very reluctant to put it up in neon lights and call it a major advance.″

He said the apparent regression of the patients’ cancer could have happened spontaneously.

The major side effect of the treatment is severe fluid retention that can lead to breathing failure. However, this symptom disappeared after the therapy ended.

One woman treated suffered from melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer, that had spread throughout her body. The treatment wiped out the cancer, and she is free of the disease a year after the therapy.

Another patient had rectal cancer that had spread to his lungs. After the therapy, three lung growths disappeared, and two others shrank and were surgically removed.

Still another patient had kidney cancer that had spread to his lungs. After the treatment, dozens of tumors disappeared, while the rest shrank dramatically.

″It’s clearly very novel,″ said Dr. James Meir of New England Medical Center in Boston. ″The only concern I think the public should have is the incredible expense. You’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars to treat even one patient. That dwarfs the cost of any kind of conventional therapy.″

The key to the technique is interleukin-2, one of the messenger proteins, or lymphokines, that the immune system uses to direct its attack on disease. Once extremely rare, the substance can now be readily manufactured using genetically engineered bacteria.

When treated with the hormone, normal white cells, or lymphocytes, are turned into tumor hunters. Transformed this way, they are called autologous lymphokine-activated killer cells. They are put back into the patient’s body, where they are encouraged to multiply with injections of interleukin-2.

On Wednesday, Rosenberg and Dr. Tadatsugu Taniguchi of Osaka University in Japan were awarded the $100,000 Hammer Prize for their work with interleukin- 2. The prize was given by the Los Angeles-based Hammer Prize Foundation, established by Armand Hammer, head of Occidental Petroleum Corp.