This article is long on the human interest and short on scientific specifics, but is nonetheless an interesting look at the present state and potential for immunotherapies for cancer - one form of the coming generation of targeted cell destruction treatments. Therapies that can cure cancer in a fraction of even late stage patients have moved from the laboratory and into early trials in recent years, a progression that will continue and broaden:
Walt [was] in Philadelphia, where he'd come to be a guinea pig in a test of a new kind of cancer treatment. Leukemia had invaded his bone marrow and spread like a stain through his lymph nodes; the traditional options, including chemo and radiation, had failed. He was 58, and his body groaned with tumors potentially weighing as much as seven pounds. Walt needed something radically different if he was going to live. And the treatment he'd been given a few days ago was certainly that.
Over the past several years, a couple of hundred mice had received it, but Walt was only the seventh adult human. (Six men had preceded him, as well as a six-year-old girl.) The treatment wasn't a chemo drug, and it wasn't a vaccine. Instead, doctors at the University of Pennsylvania had tried to make Walt's own body the drug. In an approach known as gene therapy, they'd taken his own immune cells, modified them to give them new powers, and injected them back into his blood.
Scientists don't talk about "curing" cancer. A cure is the hope so great, so seemingly out of reach, that it must never be invoked. They've built a wall around the word. Still, the Penn researchers - as careful as they were, as professionally sober and skeptical - couldn't help but wonder: Was their small experiment the start of something that could one day affect thousands, tens of thousands, more? Was it revealing a secret about the human body that could point the way to treatments for other cancers, not just leukemia? There was no way to know until they gathered more data. They needed to show that the therapy was safe. And they needed to prove that the early patients - the men whose tumors they'd blasted away - weren't flukes.
Which is why so much now depended on Walter Keller. If Walt's condition improved and his tumors diminished, the trial would move forward, and the potential of the Penn therapy - the result of a decades-long quest of scientific passion and discovery - would continue to grow. But if he suffered harm, Penn would have to pause the trial and maybe stop it altogether.