Nightly News   |  December 09, 2013

Gene therapy offers new hope to cancer patients

A new treatment called targeted cellular therapy has helped leukemia patients by using immune cells from each patient to treat their cancer. NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports.

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>>> we mentioned health news tonight in the fight against cancer. a small but significant study this time involving patients suffering from the most common forms of leukemia. they were all told that the conventional treatments like chemo were no longer working. they were all given one last hope by doctors. this story is about what happened next. our report tonight from our chief medical editor dr. nancy snyderman .

>> reporter: less than a year ago bob levis was relying on blood transfusions to stay alive. he had aggressive leukemia and was quickly losing hope.

>> i met with my lawyer, updated the will. i thought it was headed that direction. i didn't see a lot of options out there.

>> reporter: he signed up for an experimental treatment at the university of pennsylvania . doctors genetically engineered his white blood cells and trance fused them into his own body to fight and destroy cancer cells .

>> i think this is really a new paradigm in cancer treatment. the this is really using a patient's own immune cells to treat their own cancer.

>> reporter: the study started small in 2010 . early outcomes were so promising researchers enrolled more adults and children. experts say the results released are remarkable. 59 patients with the most common forms of leukemia were treated in the study. many had significant improvement. today, 25 are cancer-free. including 8-year-old emily whitehead. in 2012 she was within days of complete organ failure when she got the new treatment called targeted cellular therapy . short-term side effects can be miserable. most patients have severe -like symptoms like emily did. her parents say it was worth it.

>> emily is doing amazing. she is in 3rd grade . she was able to keep up with her class. she's a normal child now.

>> reporter: doctors say proving this is a cure will require following these patients and others for years. most agree the approach is the new frontier in fighting leukemia and other cancers.

>> i'm in complete remission. that's a good place to be after being on death's doorstep a few months ago.

>> reporter: for bob and his family it's the gift of life . during a holiday season he thought he would never see. dr. nancy snyderman , nbc news, new york.