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Toward a Cure?

A cancer-killing treatment that works astoundingly well in mice is being readied for human trials.

A promising new cancer treatment, which has eradicated 100 percent of advanced malignancies in lab mice, will be tested in a human trial at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center this summer to determine whether the therapy eliminates cancer in people as thoroughly as it does in rodents.

The launch of the trial, given approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was announced last week by lead researcher Zheng Cui at the Understanding Aging conference in Los Angeles.

The study proceeds from the discovery, nearly a decade ago, of a cancer-resistant mouse; subsequent tests found that white blood cells from that mouse and its offspring cured advanced cancers in laboratory mice. Similar cancer-killing mechanisms in the white blood cells of some healthy humans have since been observed. The treatment consists of transfusing specific white blood cells, called granulocytes, from chosen donors into cancer patients.

See our TODAY IN MICE blog.

“In mice, we’ve been able to eradicate even highly aggressive forms of malignancy with extremely large tumors,” Cui said. “Hopefully, we will see the same results in humans. Our laboratory studies indicate that this cancer-fighting ability is even stronger in healthy humans.”

In the laboratory, the research team has tested cancer-fighting cells from healthy donors against human cervical, prostate and breast cancer cells, with good results. The anti-tumor response involves granulocytes of the innate immune system, which fights off infections. Granulocytes are the most numerous kind of white blood cells and can comprise as much as 60 percent of the total white blood cells circulating through healthy people.

In a small study of human volunteers, the researchers observed that cancer-killing properties were highest in the granulocytes of people younger than 50. There were other limitations: Emotional stress and wintertime seemed to lower the cells’ effectiveness. So for the upcoming study, Wake Forest is recruiting 500 local potential donors who are 50 or younger and in good health; because the cancer-killing ability in these cells is highest during the summer, researchers hope to find volunteers who can afford the therapy quickly. For more information about qualifications for donors and participants, click here.

Volunteers will be selected based on the potential cancer-fighting activity of their white blood cells, and the granulocytes will be separated from the rest of their blood during a process called apheresis, which is similar to platelet donation. The cancer patients will then receive the granulocytes through a transfusion; as many as three donors may be needed to provide enough blood for one study participant.

“The difference between our study and the traditional white cell therapy is that we’re selecting the healthy donors based on the cancer-killing ability of their white blood cells,” Cui said.

The goal of the phase II study is to find whether patients can tolerate the number of transfused granulocytes to make treatment possible. If this phase of the study is successful, scientists will expand the study to determine if the treatment is best suited to certain types of cancer.

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