CAR-T cell therapy holds promise as new cancer treatment

Published: February 18, 2016

Science & Tech Editor

The available treatments for cancer have evolved drastically and rapidly over the last 50 years as advances in molecular biology, biochemistry and cellular biology have spurred development and increased understanding of cancer as a disease. One of the most promising techniques that has been refined over the last decade uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.

Immunotherapy works by training the body’s own immune system to recognize and then eliminate the cancerous cells. The technique works by developing specific antibodies in the laboratory, and then injecting them into the body of the patient.

The technique begins with the development of monoclonal antibodies in the laboratory. Monoclonal antibodies only bind to one specific protein on the surface of the cancerous cells. Cells in the body express a wide range of proteins that the cell then embeds in the plasma membrane. Cells throughout the body express different surface proteins in order to communicate with each other and interact with their environment.

Scientists take advantage of this system by looking for surface proteins only expressed by the cancerous cells. They then engineer the antibody specific for the protein. Once an antibody is developed, they will use a mouse or a rabbit, generally, to replicate the antibody before it is injected into patients.

Once injected into the body, the antibody binds to the antigen, the protein on the cancer cell, and the immune system recognizes the antibody. The binding of antibody to antigen will initiate the immune response causing the body to develop killer T cells and memory T cells, cells that have had a previous encounter with their cognate antigen. The killer T cells will circulate the blood stream looking for the cells tagged with the antibody. The killer T cells then will cause the cancerous cells to undergo apoptosis, programmed cell death.

The technique has an added benefit of giving the person some immunity to the cancerous cells. A recent study published looks at this technique which is called CAR-T Cell therapy. The technique was also up for debate at a recent scientific meeting.

Scientists developed CAR-T cells for treating blood cancers, and they have already shown some success in patients. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting on Feb. 14, scientists conducting research on the CAR-T technique stated that the treatment may be more effective if the patients received a transplant of memory T cells.

The transplant would place the memory cells into the patient in the hopes of boosting or creating an immune response. The benefit of this technique means that the patient does not have to wait for the body to produce the memory or killer T cells.

In preliminary clinical trials, the treatment has had great success in treating lymphoblastic leukemia and has been successful in treating metastasized tumors in the bones and other parts of the body.

The technique promises to show great results in the future, and may have applications beyond just blood cancers. The benefit of immunotherapy techniques is that it can act as a long lasting drug in the system, preventing relapse of the cancer for up to 14 years.

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