Scientists turn immune cells into tumor fighters to treat melanoma

U.S. government scientists turned regular blood cells into tumor attackers that wiped out all signs of cancer in two men with advanced melanoma. The striking finding, unveiled Thursday, marks an important step in the quest for gene therapy for cancer.

But the genetically altered cells didn't help 15 other melanoma victims. So scientists are trying to strengthen the shots.

Still, the National Cancer Institute called its experiment the first real success in cancer gene therapy because it fought cancer's worst stage, when it has spread through the body, unlike earlier attempts that targeted single tumors.

And the government hopes to soon begin testing the gene therapy in small numbers of patients dying from more common cancers, such as advanced breast or colon cancer.

The hope is that one day, such treatment might provide long-lasting tumor suppression.

"It's not like chemotherapy or radiation, where as soon as you're done, you're done," said lead researcher Dr. Steven Rosenberg, the NCI's surgery chief. "We're giving living cells which continue to grow and function in the body."

The first two successful patients appear melanoma-free almost two years after infusions of tumor fighters made from their own blood. Doctors can't predict how the men will fare long-term. Melanoma, the most aggressive skin cancer and killer of thousands a year, is notorious for returning years after patients think they have subdued it.

"I'm cured for now," is how a grateful Mark Origer, 53, put it after a checkup from NCI doctors this week. "I know how fortunate I am to have gone through this and responded to this. Not everybody's that lucky."

Cancer specialists praised the work, published Thursday by the journal Science, but warned that years of additional research are needed, reports AP.