Last month, Penn Medicine put out a press release heralding a “cancer treatment breakthrough 20 years in the making.” In a small clinical trial, three patients with advanced chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) were treated with genetically engineered versions of their own T cells. Just a few weeks after treatment the tumors had disappeared, and the patients remained in remission for a year before the study was published.

The release didn’t, however, explain those “20 years in the making.” In 1989, Prof. Zelig Eshhar of the Weizmann Institute’s Immunology Department first published a paper describing a method of creating gene-modified T cells by adding on chimeric molecules that functioned as receptors with the specificity of an antibody. The idea, from the beginning, was that these immune cells could be programmed to identify and coordinate an attack against such cells as cancer cells, which generally manage to evade the immune system. The engineering method used by the Penn team is the one Eshhar began developing in the 1980s. For Eshhar, the new study is proof of concept; it had previously been shown to work in mice. Now that the method has been successfully used in humans – and the results even better than anyone dared hope – it can be tried on a wider scale for other types of cancer.

If the idea seems futuristic now, it was downright science fiction, then. More importantly, those first chimeric T cells were created in a lab dish and sent off to attack other cells in a lab dish. Those twenty years reflect the time it takes to move from a revolutionary idea that works in the lab to a medical treatment that works on humans. In light of the many potential anti-cancer treatments that fail somewhere along the way from lab to clinic, the new study is a triumph both for the Penn team and for Eshhar and his team.

This is clearly the place to repeat our mantra about basic research: It is a long-term undertaking. There are no guarantees. No one can predict where a specific line of inquiry will eventually lead, or when. Without basic research and vision, there will be no innovative new cancer treatments.

Eshhar, by the way, recently improved on the genetically engineered T cell idea by creating them from a non-matched donor pool, rather than cells extracted from the individual patient. In mouse experiments, he and his team temporarily suppressed the immune system with a mild dose of radiation and then administered the donor chimeric T cells. Because the method destroys tumors so quickly and effectively, these cells had time to finish the job before the immune system came back online and rejected them.

How long will it take for this improved method to reach the clinic? For our answer, see paragraph four. Or keep posted here.


  1. #1 S. Bolser
    September 12, 2011

    We have been waiting so long for good news. Will it be an expensive treatment, I wonder. Prof. Eshhar may well be a medical hero right up there with Jonas Salk, who took away the scourge I remember from my childhood, and so well current generations barely knows what polio was.

  2. #2 Paul Browne
    September 13, 2011

    Fascinating work, and a good example of why investment in basic scientific research is so important to medical progress in the long term.

    David Porter and colleagues have published a paper on CAR therapy for CLL last June in the Journal of Cancer that is available to view without subscription in PubMed Central

    It gives a good -if brief – overview of some of the research leading up to the clinical trial.

  3. #3 drew
    September 15, 2011

    there have been for quite some time now, more than 14 natural “CANCER CURES”. And a few thousand herbs that can help combat the side effects of establishment medicines so called treatments i.e. cut burn poison or irradiate that can be more dangerous than the cancer itself.

    Big Pharmacological Companies loose money if you can go to your backyard and grow your own cure, they use their billions to dominate the education of future doctors, so any alternative to their monopoly is promptly attacked and discredited before it is thoughtfully considered.

  4. #4 Burple Nurple
    November 7, 2011

    I’ll be quick, you got anything to back that up Drew?

  5. #5 Guess The Word Cheat
    March 6, 2013

    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was wondering what all is required to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web savvy so I’m not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Cheers

    • #6 Weizmann Science Writer
      March 7, 2013

      I’m not sure why you’re asking me this — We Weizmann Science Writers joined the ScienceBlogs site, which is an aggregate of individual bloggers — and enjoy the benefits. If you write well and have a good idea for a blog, you can either try to pitch it to an existing blog site on a similar topic, or else Google “word press” and read the tutorials.

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