The Thursday Blog: Sci Fi in the Doctor’s Office Edition

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.

48 Responses to The Thursday Blog: Sci Fi in the Doctor’s Office Edition

  1. Sooo….you’re saying there’s no more cancer…right?

    Did I miss something?

    And: SNEAK PEAK!!!! Can hardly wait!

  2. One would be, alas, very naive to think that there would be much money in an actual cure for cancer. Curing an illness means the patient is no longer paying for expensive medicines that prolong the illness and treat only the symptoms. The pharmacorps don’t want cures, they want guaranteed revenue streams.

    • But people will always get new cancers.

      Unfortunately, selling a patient 30,000 pills at $10 a pop (or whatever) is worth an awful lot more money than selling a patient 1 pill for even $10,000 a pop.

      • All true. However, with the number of third world pharmaceutical outfits in the world servicing populations who might be able to afford a cure but certainly could NOT afford a lifetime of treatment, even a one shot infusion of a few hundred billion dollars might be well worth the research capital. You would NOT have to market this treatment.

        • Well their R&D generally does not come from American institutions. In America it’s all doomed grad students and PhDs working on something on a shoestring budget for easily as long as a decade, and then maybe some company comes and funds it because they figure they can beat a quick buck from it before the flaws catch up to them in a liability lawsuit. If they want this studied and made they need to go to India or something where huge pharma just doesn’t exist. Every American drug company has a form letter for rejecting actual cures to cancer I bet you a dollar versus a c-note.

          • Time for A TANGENT!

            I remember reading a thing where heart disease sufferers in Vancouver (or BC in general?) were given a program where the Canadian government would fly them down to Seattle (paying for their flight in full), pay for their surgery at a very prestigious hospital, and fly them back the following week after picking up their hospital / hotel / everything bills.

            This was done in response to the criticism that public health care was too slow, and that people were dying because of it. The program was offered to everyone in a certain category (it was available to over 90 BC residents – critical condition? I’m not really sure, but it was the HIGHEST of high needs while still being able to give consent).

            2 people took it, and the rest waited that “far too long” amount of time. I think only 1 or 2 people in the province died of that particular problem that year. The government cancelled the program due to lack of interest.

            So the government basically gave you a free lifesaving surgery as well as a vacation (the deal was really sweet to try to get interest in it). Statistically, no one took it, and no one died. PUBLIC HEALTHCARE WORKS, AMERICA! TRY IT!

              • You also bring up a serious problem in Canada’s healthcare sector: The doctor’s union that keeps them overpaid but overworked, and definitely much freer from consequences for their fuckups than they should be. There are far too working doctors and we’re in the arguing and trial-program stage over what we should do to deal with the problem.
                Of course it’s not officially called a doctor’s union, and they wouldn’t think of it that way, but either way doctors have way too much power both individually and organizationally.

  3. Yes, it’s just like all those gas companies that paid millions of dollars to inventor that invented more fuel efficient vehicles so they could keep gas guzzlers on the road. Only this this it is pill guzzlers instead. Corporations only look out for the board of directors and the c.e.o. first then the stock holders, and that is where their loyalty ends.

  4. Hey Kevin – this is really interesting to me for a variety of reasons. Would you mind providing more sources than the medicine journal?

      • I must be tainted by academia. I need to throw a source into the bibliography if I read it, let alone reference it, let alone quote it…

        Since when is the response to “[citation needed]” “google it”? This sounds more terse than I intend it to be, so sorry about that, but I have no idea how to make it sound not-terse.

        The logical answer would be to just not say anything, but when have liberal art majors followed logic?

        • Yeah… I do this for fun, not because I want to be taken seriously by the academic community. When I read “hey, list more sources” what I actually SEE is, “I’m too lazy to look this up myself, you do it for me.” Now of course that isn’t really what you MEANT, and I acknowledge that, but I’m still not going to do it.

          I’m just contrary that way. 😉

          • Yeah, I completely agree and empathize with that. My problem is that I like to identify what statements came from what exactly, which is fairly difficult when provided with only a name and a google.

            Well, far be it from me to impose on your enjoyment – I’ll get over it by next thursday at the very latest, most likely.

            Also: I’m a competent googler but not the best googler. Sometimes I simply botch my search roll instead of taking 10.

    • Yay! You’ll be able to have cancer with impunity!

      You know, Phillip Morris really ought to be the ones funding this. What a PR bump it would be for them to be the ones to cure lung cancer!

        • I’m not sure that big tobacco is big and healthy enough to survive a sumo-fight with big pharma, but this sort of risky strategy of trying to cure the main complaint about your product might be worth it. If the actual R&D&M&D time is short enough that might only be about five to ten years of having hitmen trying to bump off all your key executives and researchers. I’m sure the big tobacco people are in the top five percent of groups of people for knowing what that means and being able to deal with that shit, they probably can write up a budget estimate and an ammo-expenditure estimate for dealing with it in three business days or less.
          Next comes the patent-fights, and the PR fights, those are actually where this is most likely to die unless they can give up a little greed and throw this shit around the world non profit. There are a lot of people who don’t really like American copyrights and patents coming down on their economies like a ton of bricks and this sort of thing might be enough to make countries stand up to America and say no to ACTA. Then you just have to travel to another country with a less backwards medical system to get your cancer treatment–Mexico has a long tradition of medical tourism from Americans who want suppressed drugs and treatments, clean up the Mexican drug war enough and people can do that.
          No, you folks have it right, if these researchers go to the right people this totally has a chance of getting out of the lab and into some hospitals.

  5. You know, after thinking about this for a couple days I have to say: Human cells with altered replication behaviour is one way of characterizing cancer. They say this miracle owes its effectiveness to white blood cells made to replicate directly instead of being produced by bone marrow…. Am I the only person who thinks this one has a good chance of causing a brand new leukemia by itself? If those replicating white blood cells aren’t in any way limited from replicating further this is a counter-tumor version of leukemia they’re injecting.
    Don’t misunderstand me: Artificially boosted white blood cell and interferon production is a worthwhile development by itself for a number of problems. With that said, I’ve heard of a number of more promising sounding cancer treatments over the years.

    • Dunno. My guess is that this is what the trials are for. Now if it were ME programming those white blood cells, I’d give them a limited shelf life of a few days, and the ability to continue replicating only as long as they were coming into contact with leukemia cells. Of course I’m not a geneticist, so what do I know?

    • That’s not the way of technological development. It always solves one problem by creating a minimum of one other problem to be solved. We haven’t come up with cures for HIV yet because we’re not being reckless enough in a smart way.

      Of course there’s a good reason for that. Being that reckless is unethical experimentation likely violating the Hippocratic Oath at best and quite possibly some form of manslaughter.