Health Team

New UNC research reprograms cells to kill cancer

Posted July 29, 2015 5:45 p.m. EDT
Updated July 30, 2015 7:33 a.m. EDT

— A new research program at UNC seeks to harness the power of the body's immune system to kill cancer, and it’s already helping patients like 7-year-old Phineas Sandi.

Phineas’ life has been anything but normal after what appeared to be a lingering cold turned out to be acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“We’d already lost one child to a different kind of leukemia,” said Phineas’ father, Carlos Sandi.

In 2013, the Sandis went through it all again, beginning a three-year journey of toxic chemotherapy in hopes of a stem cell transplant.

“It’s just incredibly difficult for the child and the family,” said Phineas’ mother, Tina Carlos.

Despite conventional measures, the cancer was still present and sure to grow.

“Ten years ago, unfortunately, Phineas probably would have passed away,” said UNC medical oncologist Dr. Jonathan Serody.

Serody says Phineas was fortunate to be accepted in a small, early phase trial for acute lymphoblastic leukemia patients at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

At NIH his white blood cells were reprogrammed to kill the cancer.

“They’re taking your child’s own tissue, genetically modifying it, infusing it back and it gets rid of the cancer in three weeks instead of three years,” said Carols Sandi.

More than two years later, Phineas is still in remission as are most of the participants at the three trial sites outside the state. It’s providing proof of concept for this type of immunotherapy.

“We consider it a vaccine, because it’s your own immune system being used to kill your tumor,” said Serody.

In a few months, UNC Lineberger Cancer Center researchers will be able to enroll patients in similar trials when the Advanced Cellular Therapeutics facility is opened this fall.

“For it to be here in North Carolina, available to everyone, is going to be amazing,” said Tina Sandi.