June 29, 2008

Could a Blood Transfusion Be a Cure for Cancer?

By Lex Alexander, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Jun. 29--Could common white blood cells fight some of the most aggressive cancers? Researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center plan a human trial to find out.

They will take white blood cells called granulocytes from people whose granulocytes have shown a strong ability to fight cancer and transfuse those cells into cancer patients.

Such transfusions have been used for years to fight some infectious diseases, but they have never been used against cancer, the researchers say.

The stakes are high for patients and researchers, says Dr. Zheng Cui, the lead researcher and an associate professor of pathology, who announced the research Saturday at a medical conference in Los Angeles.

The 22 patients will be people with advanced tumors for whom conventional treatments have stopped working or have never worked.

"They have no other choice except to wait to die or look for new, experimental things," Cui says.

And the method, if it works, will be a new way of treating cancer.

"This is not something that is already in a textbook or even remotely related to that," Cui says. "Your career could be over if you're wrong."

But Cui and his fellow researchers are willing to try this approach because of what they've learned from The Mouse That Wouldn't Die.

In 1999, Cui and other researchers found a single laboratory mouse that wouldn't die of cancer even after a number of normally lethal cancers were introduced into its body.

In 2003, the researchers reported that they had bred a cancer-resistant colony of more than 700 descendants of the original mouse, now dead of old age.

In those mice, researchers found, some types of white blood cells killed cancer cells without affecting healthy ones.

In 2006, the researchers reported that they had injected white blood cells from cancer-resistant mice into normal mice with cancer.

The test subjects either never developed cancer, or the white blood cells killed it entirely and permanently -- in 100 percent of cases. Some of those types of cancers had never been cured by conventional means.

The white blood cells destroyed cancers even when injected into parts of the body away from the cancer.

One other important finding was that these white cells are "innate" -- they occur naturally in the body and not because of exposure to a germ, vaccination or other influence.

"These are cells that you don't have to teach," Cui said. "They're born killers if they have the right makeup."

The researchers also successfully tested human granulocytes against human cervical, prostate and breast cancer cells in the lab.

The trial announced Saturday is designed primarily to see whether planned dosage levels are safe, but researchers also will see how well the transfusions work. Each participant will receive four to five infusions for up to two weeks, Cui said.

To get the cells necessary for the infusions, the researchers will test about 500 people from this area for the cancer-fighting ability of their granulocytes.

Then selected donors will give granulocytes through a process that removes blood, filters the desired white blood cells out and returns the rest of the blood to the donor's body.

The cancer patients will be checked frequently for possible side effects. The treatment's effectiveness will be assessed after three months.

If the dosages prove safe, a larger trial will focus on how well the approach works against certain kinds of cancer.

The trial's time frame is unclear, in part because the researchers lack money, Cui said. In North Carolina and some other states, some private insurance will pay for individuals to take part in experimental treatment.

The trial's total cost is estimated at $2.5 million to $3 million.

Researchers are only beginning to understand why the white blood cells work as they do, but Cui says that's not important now.

"If it works, we can take the time to understand the mechanism, but (now) we don't have to," he said. "Our goal is not trying to understand things. Our goal is to try to create something useful to cancer patients."

Contact Lex Alexander at 373-7088 or [email protected]


To see more of the News & Record or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.news-record.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.