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WOODS CROSS — Fighting an aggressive and often deadly form of leukemia with the HIV virus? It's an experimental treatment that's giving a Utah family hope for the future.
In early 2012, Marshall Jensen was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. At the time, he had only been married to his wife, A.J., for a year.
“They were a young couple. They weren’t married very long. They had a brand new little baby when all of this started,” said Lindsay Wright, who lives in the couple’s Woods Cross neighborhood.
For the last three years, Jensen and his family have traveled around the country for surgeries, treatments and procedures to fight his leukemia. But the cancer returned after several treatments, leaving little hope.
“At one point his goal was just to make it to his 30th birthday,” another neighbor said.
Then Jensen learned about Dr. Carl June and his team of researchers at Penn Medicine. They’ve spent two decades developing a breakthrough experimental treatment that kills cancer in otherwise incurable leukemia patients.
"It felt right; and we didn't know how we were going to get out there, what we were going to do, but it worked,” Jensen said. “By God's grace I was able to come back."
Perhaps even more amazing than the turnaround is what June's therapy uses to fight the cancer: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"It's a disabled virus," June explained. "But it retains the one essential feature of HIV, which is the ability to insert new genes into cells.”
It felt right; and we didn't know how we were going to get out there, what we were going to do, but it worked. ... By God's grace I was able to come back.
–Marshall Jensen, cancer survivor
In June's therapy, billions of T-cells are taken from the cancer patient's body. The T-cells are then taken into the lab where the DNA in the cells is altered with a harmless form of the HIV virus. The altered cells — now programmed to recognize, target and kill the cancer — are then placed back into the patient's body.
June said the cells, which he refers to as "serial killers," stay dormant in the body unless the cancer returns.
With his cancer in remission, Jensen returned home Thursday to a celebration organized by his neighbors.
“It really has been an experience that we have all been a part of, instead of just them battling it by themselves,” a neighbor said.
The group tied yellow ribbons around the neighborhood to symbolize hope for Jensen and his continued recovery. They say his strength has strengthened everyone around him, and they're all hoping he's now home to stay.
“It truly feels like a miracle, it really does,” Wright said.
Amazingly, nine of the 12 cancer patients who received June's treatment, including Jensen, are in either full or partial remission.
The next step in June’s research will be to use gene therapy to fight other cancers. He said trials are set to start this summer for patients with pancreatic cancer.
Contributing: Jordan Ormond