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How to Engineer Patients’ Immune Cells to Treat Their Cancers

Updated: Jul 23, 2020

We are now in the period of medicine where doctors can engineer our own immune system to fight cancer cells. Cancer treatment traditionally starts with surgery, then chemotherapy, finishing with radiation treatment to remove any remaining cancer cells. This works most of the time but remains inefficient in treating hard to reach and aggressive cancers.  Having your own immune system attack cancer cells is a relatively novel idea that has shown promising results over the last decade. More recently, the advancement in Car-T cell therapy has shown remarkable responses in some patients for whom all other treatments had stopped working.

How it works

For those of you who are not familiar with modern scientific research methods will find this exciting. In our body, T-cells play a critical role in orchestrating an immune response to kill and remove foreign and infected cells. They can do this by detecting harmful proteins only found on the surface of these cells. The harmful proteins bind to receptors on the T-cells and the harmful cell is removed. A T-cell will not normally attack cancer cells because cancer cells have similar surface proteins as your normal healthy cells. But there are a few key differences and if we can teach the T-cells which proteins to attack, they should be able to remove cancer cells from the body. 

To do this, doctors have to draw out patients blood and filter out T-cells. Next, a genetically engineered virus with a gene that programs the T-cell to detect only cancer cells is applied to the T-cells. Once the virus infects the T-cells, it should then express the receptor. These cells are amplified in a laboratory for about a week before being injected back into the patient. The newly injected T-cells should now remove all of the available cancer cells it can find. 

This method has been successful in treating blood cancers like leukemia but it has been difficult to implement this technology in treating solid tumors. By doing more research on T-cells, we may soon be able to reprogram them to attack more specific properties of cancer cells or even to allow them to travel into hard to reach tumor regions. By supporting basic research, you are helping develop new tools that can be used in the clinical setting. This will lead to better medicines and hopefully, in the long run, eliminate human suffering caused by disease. 

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