It had been imagined that viruses would one day be altered genetically and used to combat other illnesses in the human body. Twenty years ago it was only theoretical… fiction. Today it is being done.
In one example researchers modified the HIV virus and inserted it into harvested white blood cells from cancer patients. The white blood cells, “reprogrammed” by the modified HIV virus, attacked the cancerous tissues as they had been directed to do, but then quickly died out, leaving the bulk of the cancer behind. Recently though, University of Pennsylvania researchers added a new wrinkle.
In addition to reprogramming the white blood cells to attack cancer cells, (in this case, leukemia) they also included new programming to direct the white blood cells to multiply “a thousand fold”, creating new cells with the altered, cancer fighting directives. The results, while thus far limited to three patients, were nothing short of miraculous. One patient, who had been given no more than a few weeks to live, is completely cancer free more than a year later. Two of the patients experienced complete eradication of all cancerous matter, with as much as five pounds of tumors simply “melting away” in a few weeks, while the third patient lost 70% of the cancer cells in his body.
The team received the funding for the research from the Alliance for Gene Therapy for those first three patients, but was unable to attract money for further testing from actual pharmaceutical companies or the National Cancer Institute, none of whom have provided any reasoning for their declining the grants. The UP researchers did get a paper into the New England Journal of Medicine, so perhaps that will raise their profile enough to attract some money from elsewhere. One could assume that there would be considerable profit motive involved in discovering an actual cure for cancer.
Many potential new treatments look good at first, but then are unable to reproduce their initial success rates over the long term. Those failures can often be just as important as the immediately successful ones, as they often lead to even more important research further down the line. Which type will this be? Success, failure, something else? While we may never know what would would have been the ultimate answer, we can know one thing for absolute certain, three people owe their lives to it.
Maybe that’s enough.
Next Thursday: a planned super-short story featuring some of the new characters from the upcoming book, New Heroes: a Novel of Lesser Earth.