Doctors: Cancer patients cured a decade after gene therapy

Feb 1, 2022, 7:03 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2022, 8:06 pm
This 2021 photo provided by the family shows Doug Olson of Pleasanton, Calif., in Bend, Ore. In 201...

This 2021 photo provided by the family shows Doug Olson of Pleasanton, Calif., in Bend, Ore. In 2010, doctors treated Olson’s leukemia with an experimental gene therapy that transformed his own blood cells into cancer killers. More than a decade later, there's no sign of cancer in his body. (Family Photo via AP)

(Family Photo via AP)

In 2010, doctors treated Doug Olson’s leukemia with an experimental gene therapy that transformed some of his blood cells into cancer killers. More than a decade later, there’s no sign of cancer in his body.

The treatment cured Olson and a second patient, according to the University of Pennsylvania doctors, who said it was the first time the therapy had been studied for so long.

“I’m doing great right now. I’m still very active. I was running half marathons until 2018,” said Olson, 75, who lives in Pleasanton, California. “This is a cure. And they don’t use the word lightly.”

His doctors describe the two cases in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature. They say the two examples show the treatment, called CAR-T cell therapy, can attack cancer immediately, then stay inside the body for years and evolve there to keep the disease at bay. Such so-called “living drugs” are now used by thousands around the world to treat certain blood cancers.

Based on the 10-year results, “we can now conclude that CAR-T cells can actually cure patients of leukemia,” said Dr. Carl June, one of the authors of the study.

The one-time treatment involves collecting the patient’s own T cells, white blood cells key to the immune system, and genetically changing them in the lab so that they will find and attack cancer cells. The modified cells are given back to the patient through IV.

By the time Olson got the treatment, he’d been fighting cancer for years. When doctors diagnosed him with chronic lymphocytic leukemia in 1996, he said, “I thought I had months to live.”

He eventually underwent chemotherapy and, at one point, his physician, Dr. David Porter, suggested he may need a bone marrow transplant. Porter also raised the idea of joining a CAR-T therapy study. Olson, CEO of a New Hampshire lab products company, said he was excited by the science and eager to avoid the transplant.

A couple weeks after getting the treatment, he felt sick for about a week and was hospitalized for three days.

“It was the very next week he sat me down and he said, ‘We cannot find a single cancer cell in your body,” Olson recalled.

The other patient, retired corrections officer Bill Ludwig, had similar results.

Over time, researchers said, the modified cells evolved, many turning into “helper” cells that work with the cancer-killing cells. Helper cells eventually became dominant in both patients.

Study author J. Joseph Melenhorst said they were able to isolate and analyze the cells using new technologies, which gave them “very good insight” into how they persisted in the patients’ bodies.

Dr. Armin Ghobadi of Washington University in St. Louis, an expert in gene and cellular immunotherapy for cancer, called the findings “incredible.” Though the word “cure” is rarely used in cancer, he said it appears these patients were “most likely” cured.

He was intrigued by the persistence of the CAR-T cells and the way the living drug evolves.

“That’s just really beautiful to see,” said Ghobadi, who was not involved in the study.

At this point, June said, tens of thousands of patients are being treated with CAR-T cell therapies, which have been approved for certain blood cancers by health authorities around the world, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The agency first approved a CAR-T therapy treatment in 2017 developed by Penn and the drugmaker Novartis for childhood leukemia.

The Nature study was paid for partly by the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research and partly by National Institutes of Health grants.

Scientists hope to see wider use of CAR-T therapies in the future for other cancers. Last year, a CAR-T cell therapy was approved for multiple myeloma, the most common malignancy of the bone marrow in adults. According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma were expected to make up just under 10% of the 1.9 million new cancer cases in the U.S. last year.

“But the big scientific challenge – and it’s a big one – is how to make this work in solid cancers,” like those in the lung, colon and other places, June said.

Even in blood cancers, there are challenges. The therapies are expensive, running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars just for the drugs. And there’s the risk of significant side effects, including an immune overreaction called “cytokine release syndrome” and nervous system-related problems such as brain swelling.

Both of the Penn patients did extremely well after the treatment. Ludwig traveled the country with his wife in a motor home and celebrated family milestones before dying early last year of COVID-19 complications.

Olson said he’s extremely grateful for the decade of life since doctors used cutting-edge science to save him.

“What’s changed is the dimension of hope. The pace of discovery takes your breath away,” he said. “It’s a brand new world.”


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


People protest against the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini, in Zurich, Switzerland, on Saturday Oct. 1...
Associated Press

Swiss police violently disperses anti-Iranian protests

BERLIN (AP) — Swiss police used rubber bullets to disperse protesters in front of the Iranian Embassy in Bern after two men climbed over the embassy’s fence and pulled down the Iranian flag from a flag pole in the yard. Police said late Saturday that nobody was injured and that the “large crowd” of protesters […]
1 day ago
Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss arrives to attend the Conservative Party conference at the ICC, ...
Associated Press

UK’s Truss sticks by economic plan as her party worries

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Liz Truss said Sunday that she could have done a better job “laying the ground” for her package of unfunded tax cuts, but insisted she would push on with an economic plan that has caused turmoil on financial markets and weakened the country’s public finances. Truss acknowledged that the […]
1 day ago
Latvian Prime Minister and Head of board of leading political party Jauna Vienotiba (New Unity) Kri...
Associated Press

Latvian premier’s party emerges on top in general election

HELSINKI (AP) — Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins’ ruling center-right party won the most votes in Latvia’s general election, centrist parties were runners-up and pro-Moscow parties crashed in a vote that was shaped by neighboring Russia’s war in Ukraine and divisions among the Baltic country’s sizable ethnic Russian minority. With more than 97% of the votes […]
1 day ago
Ukrainian servicemen drive a tank on the way to Siversk, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Saturday, Oct. 1,...
Associated Press

Ukraine presses counteroffensive after Russian setback

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia attacked the Ukrainian president’s hometown with suicide drones on Sunday, and Ukraine pushed ahead with its counteroffensive after taking back control of a strategic eastern city. Russia’s loss of Lyman, which it had been using as a transport and logistics hub, is a new blow to the Kremlin as it […]
1 day ago
Police cars wrecked in soccer riots are seen on the pitch at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Jav...
Associated Press

EXPLAINER: What’s behind Indonesia’s deadly soccer match?

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Violence and a deadly stampede that erupted following a domestic league soccer match Saturday night marked another tragedy in Indonesian football. Here’s a look at how the chaos occurred and what is being done to prevent future incidents. ___ HOW DID THE CHAOS OCCUR? Chaos broke out after Persebaya Surabaya defeated […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Military: Gunmen kill Pakistani UN peacekeeper in east Congo

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A Pakistani soldier serving as a U.N. peacekeeper in the Democratic Republic of Congo was killed in a militant attack in the country’s volatile east, the military said. A group of six militants reached the United Nations’ permanent operation base in the district of Minembwe, ostensibly to surrender their weapons as part […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
Doctors: Cancer patients cured a decade after gene therapy