Researchers at Washington University are conducting some of their first human trials for a new cancer drug that would treat one of the most lethal forms of adult leukemia. While standard leukemia treatments involve months of intense chemotherapy, this drug uses a specialized antibody to help the body’s own immune system learn how to fight back.
Six patients have received minute doses of the drug, called MGD006. Up to ten people could be added over the next 18 months. If patients do not show severe side effects, researchers will slowly scale up doses as the trial progresses.
The drug is one component of a three-part study of immune-based therapies for acute myleogenous leukemia, or AML. Another therapy under development by the research team involves separating white blood cells from donated blood, stimulating them, and injecting them into a patient.
The research, led by Wash U’s Dr. John DiPersio, represents what some call a ‘paradigm shift’ in cancer treatment. It's a contrast from traditional chemotherapy treatments, which work by slowing or stopping the growth of cancer cells, but end up harming healthy cells in the process. In 2013, Science magazine called immunotherapy the 'breakthrough of the year.'
"It’s the idea of teaching the immune system -- your own immune system -- to recognize, attack and clear cancer cells,” Washington University co-investigator Dr. Daniel Link said.
AML is the second-most common type of leukemia in adults; it’s also one of the most deadly. Less than one quarter of patients survive more than five years after diagnosis.
But this type of leukemia holds a lot of promise for immune-based therapies, Link said.
“AML is what we call a liquid tumor, which means its blood based. It’s very easy for antibodies and immune cells to find the cancer cells,” Link said, adding that if these treatments work, their findings could be adapted to other cancers as well.
The project has had multiple funding sources over the past years. Link said cuts to federal research grants have forced researchers to rely more heavily on private and nonprofit funding sources. Most recently, the team received a $400,000 grant from Pedal the Cause.
Follow St. Louis Public Radio health reporter Durrie Bouscaren on Twitter: @durrieB