When Milton Wright III got his third cancer diagnosis, he cried until he laughed. He was 20 and had survived leukemia twice before, first when he was eight and again as a teen. Each time he’d suffered through years of punishing chemotherapy.
But now he had checked himself in to Seattle Children’s Hospital. An aspiring model, he had taken a fall before a photo shoot and found he couldn’t shake off the pain in his ribs. When the doctors started preparing him for a spinal tap, he knew the cancer was back. “I said, Oh, man, they are going to tell me I relapsed again, ” he recalls. “They’re going to give me my six months.”
The third time wasn’t good, he knew. He’d seen enough sick kids at the Ronald McDonald House to know that when leukemia comes back like this, it’s usually resistant to chemotherapy. Hardly anyone survives.
Top: A bioreactor bag holds a leukemia patient’s T cells. The cells have been genetically modified to fight cancer. A new receptor has been added.
Middle: A sample of a patient’s T cells is prepared for quality tests.
Bottom: A bottle of nutrients is used to feed the T cells, which are grown for about 10 days, until they number in the billions. Then they can be reinfused into a patient’s veins.
But Wright did. In 2013 his cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was destroyed with a new type of treatment in which cells from his immune system, called T cells, were removed from his blood, genetically engineered to target his cancer, and then dripped back into his veins. Although Wright was only the second person at Seattle Children’s to receive the treatment, earlier results in Philadelphia and New York had been close to miraculous. In 90 percent of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia that has returned and resists regular drugs, the cancer goes away. The chance of achieving remission in these circumstances is usually less than 10 percent.