On Election Day, a day of underdogs and upsets in American politics, Representative Mark DeSaulnier may have scored the greatest comeback of them all. Six months after completing chemotherapy to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia, he has now beaten cancer and his opponent for California’s 11th district congressional seat.
The type of leukemia that was diagnosed in Rep. DeSaulnier is the most common form of blood cancer in adults. Once it goes into remission, the five-year survival rate is 85 percent. Indeed, thanks to advances in biotechnology, many once-fatal blood cancers are now quite treatable.
One of the most promising areas of oncology research is a type of immunotherapy called “living” T-cell or CAR-T therapy. This approach harnesses the body’s own immune system to fight disease by allowing scientists to genetically engineer molecular “receptors” into T-cells, effectively reprogramming the patient’s immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells bearing a unique marker. Once the engineered T-cells are injected back into a patient’s blood stream, they can circulate throughout the body and destroy any cancerous cells bearing that the marker.
Living T-cell therapy is such an important advance in oncology because cancer cells have an uncanny ability to cloak themselves or hide from the body’s immune system. Because cancer cells originate from the body’s own cells, the immune system doesn’t automatically recognize cancer as an invading pathogen in the way it would a flu or foreign bacteria. Living T-cell therapy allows the immune system to differentiate, and these treatments can trigger a long-lasting immune response against tumors.
In one recent study conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, 27 of 29 patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia – many with only months to live – went into full remission after receiving an experimental living T-cell therapy. In some patients, a single dose of the biologic treatment caused their tumors to vanish within weeks of infusion.
A new case of blood cancer is diagnosed in the United States every three minutes, according to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. There is no screening test like there is for breast or colon cancer, which means patients with blood cancers often don’t know anything is wrong until they experience a symptom like weight loss. Therefore, the potential of immunotherapy to treat late-stage leukemia could represent a significant breakthrough in the field of oncology.
For his part, Rep. DeSaulnier says he’ll keep educating people about leukemia as he advocates in the House of Representatives for those working on the front lines of cancer research.
So if you ever visit Rep. DeSaulnier in his Washington office – or see him out on his regular eight-mile run back home on Mount Diablo – thank him for supporting great organizations like the American Cancer Society so others can get the care they need to beat cancer. And congratulate him on never giving up the fight.