University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center Researchers Awarded Grant To Fight Leukemia Recurrence

September 01, 1998

LEXINGTON, KY (Sept. 1, 1998) - Imagine sparing leukemia patients a second round of chemotherapy. That's what University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center researchers hope to do with a three-year, $321,459 grant from the Leukemia Society of America. Craig Jordan, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine, UK College of Medicine, and John Yanelli, Ph.D., associate professor of internal medicine, UK College of Medicine, will use the money to design gene therapy-based treatments to help leukemia patients avoid recurrence of the disease.

Despite recent advances in treatment, cancer recurrence remains a long-term problem. Cancer cells often travel throughout the body, thus, some malignant cells may escape chemical or surgical removal. To tackle this problem, Jordan and Yanelli have devised a method to prevent relapse by allowing the patient's immune system to "mop up" residual tumor cells in the bloodstream. It's based on a promising technique called immunotherapy. Used to treat other cancer types, immunotherapy targets immune cells to attack a disease.

"We're going to educate the immune system in the lab," Jordan said. "We've invented a new technology to genetically change the tumor cell."

The researchers plan to extract tumor cells from a patient, culture them, and then using a virus as a transfer agent, will introduce human genes into the cell. The genes are selected for their ability to generate an immune response toward cancer cells.

The cultured cells then would be crippled by radiation - the cells will not die, but will lose the ability to reproduce. After patients complete a standard regime of chemotherapy, the irradiated tumor cells will be reinfused into their body.

Researchers hope the genetically engineered cells will rev up the patient's immune system to seek and destroy any remaining cancer cells.

The procedure should be almost completely nontoxic, Jordan said. It would eliminate a second round of chemotherapy for patients, reduce their exposure to toxic compounds and decrease the number of days that they're sick.

"Ever since doctors began treating cancer, there's been a basic strategy - that's giving people a very toxic drug that's more toxic to cancer cells than normal cells," Jordan said. "They are absolutely married to the fact that they're going to make people sick, so anything we can do that represents a new approach, we find appealing."

University of Kentucky Medical Center

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