They once struggled for funding. Now, Carl June and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are drawing attention for a trial that uses gene therapy—engineered T cells—to fight cancer:

“In their natural state, T cells usually aren’t able to kill tumor cells, partly because they can’t latch on strongly enough. But June was fascinated by scientific papers showing it was possible to change this. A few researchers—first an Israeli named Zelig Eshhar in the ’80s, then other investigators around the world—had discovered that you could force a T cell to stick to a tumor cell and kill it. To pull this off, you built an ‘engineered T cell’—a T cell never before seen in nature. You altered the T cell’s genetic blueprint by injecting a new gene into the cell. The new gene would tell it to build a new molecular limb. The limb, called a ‘chimeric antigen receptor,’ would sit partly inside the cell and partly outside, and it could send signals either in or out. One signal it could send was: kill. Another was: replicate.

“June loved this approach. So elegant. Put the immune system on steroids. What if you could train the body to fight cancer on its own? What if, instead of replacing a patient’s immune system (as in a bone-marrow transplant) or pumping him full of poison (chemo), you could just borrow some cells, tweak them, and infuse them back into the patient? In theory, the engineered cells would stay alive in the blood, replenishing themselves, killing any tumors that recurred. It occurred to June that one infusion could last a lifetime.”