by JAMES CHAPMAN, Daily Mail
A simple injection to cure leukaemia could be produced within five years after a remarkable breakthrough by a British research team.
They believe they have found a way to trigger the body's immune system to beat a disease which kills 4,000 people a year in this country. The same techniques may eventually be advanced to treat other cancers, such as breast and lung, they say.
The breakthrough follows six years of research, funded by the Leukaemia Research Fund, at London's Hammersmith Hospital and Imperial College School of Medicine.
It involves two strands, firstly to 'label' the cancerous cells, and secondly to mass-produce immune cells outside the body which can then be injected to search and destroy the malignant ones. In the future, the researchers hope to use the technique to 'wake up' a patient's own immune system to destroy malignant cells without using donor cells.
Dr Hans Stauss, a tumour immunologist at Imperial, said: 'The possibilities for new treatments are enormous.' The first trial of the injection is about to begin on ten patients.
The 'labelling' was achieved by identifying a single gene which is over-active in leukaemia cells. It is referred to as WT-1. For the second strand, the researchers took white blood cells from healthy donors and isolated the few that mounted the fiercest response against tumour cells in the laboratory.
By cloning them, they were able to produce unlimited supplies of peak performance immune cells, called T-cells. In tests, the engineered immune cells specifically destroyed leukaemia cells and ignored normal cells of the same type.
'That's the beauty of the approach,' said Dr Stauss. 'It is so specific at destroying cancer cells.' He hopes to further develop the technique for after-care to ensure there is no recurrence of the cantimescale is about five to six years before we see it widely used,' said Dr Stauss.
'The principle can be applied to almost all forms of leukaemia. What makes the work even more exciting is that our findings can also be applied to solid cancers, such as breast or lung cancer, where there is similar over-activity of WT-1.'
Lord Winston, director of research and development at the Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust, said: 'To the best of our knowledge this is the first time in the world that anyone has identified a target which allows T-cells to selectively destroy cells that cause leukaemia.
'Such a breakthrough underlines the vital importance of long-term academic research in the production of new and desperately needed treatments.'
Every year 5,000 cases of leukaemia are diagnosed in Britain and 4,000 victims die. It can be either acute, with rapid degeneration, or chronic, a slowly progressive form of the disease.
In both cases the bone marrow of the patient produces large numbers of abnormal, fast- dividing cells which inhibit the body's ability to produce blood. Chemotherapy is the recognised treatment. Sometimes bone marrow transplants are needed.