At least 12.6 million people are diagnosed with cancer around the world every year, and more than 7.5 million die of the disease – a toll that is steadily rising in every country as the population expands and people live longer, according to research by the World Health Organisation. The possibility of curing cancer has been in the works for years and there may finally be an answer within one of the most feared virus’s known today, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
What we have learned how to do is train the immune system to recognize and then kill tumor cells. – Carl H. June, MD
Sound too good to be true? The research comes from Professor Carl H. June from the University of Pennsylvania and his team. Dr. June is a highly-respected scientist working on cancer, HIV, and the immune system, and has published his work in many leading scientific journals over several years.
Professor June and his team are taking an interesting approach to this challenge. In particular, Dr. June and his team are developing new ways to turn the power of the immune system on leukaemia – a cancer caused by white blood cells growing out of control. They have developed a technique in which they collect special ‘killer’ immune cells, called T cells, from a cancer patient. These are then ‘reprogrammed’ in the lab using a modified virus, which is very good at smuggling genes into the T cells.
In this case, the researchers added genes carrying instructions that tell the T cells to make a new protein called a “chimeric antigen receptor” – this lets them lock on to molecules found on the surface of cancer cells, killing them in the process. These reprogrammed T cells are then injected back into the patient, where they grow and multiply, creating an army of killer cells to fight the disease.
How Can The HIV Virus Help Cure Cancer?
Dr. June and his team are using a type of virus called a lentivirus to reprogram the T cells. This family of viruses – of which HIV is a member – are particularly skilled at sneaking into cells and embedding their genetic code within the cell’s DNA. This makes them a good vehicle for smuggling in the genetic instruction telling T cells to attack the cancer.
Below is a video of Dr. Carl H. June explaining the process of programming the T cells and includes the remarkable story of a six-year old girl diagnosed with leukemia and how this specific treatment has helped her.