Re-wiring immune cells for cancer therapy

Cancer treatment that is personalised for individual patients is a dream shared by researchers and oncologists alike.  We know that cancer is a fiercely complex disease and as a result it is difficult to predict how well any one patient may respond to a given treatment.  Current treatments, be it radiotherapy, chemotherapy or targeted drugs, are administered based on the best available evidence, collected through rigorous scientific testing.

New research published this week in the journal Nature describes a powerful new technique that could revolutionise the way cancer is treated.  The work carried out by a team at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York builds on progress made in a treatment strategy called ‘adoptive T-cell therapy’.

Adoptive T-cell therapy utilises the patient’s own immune system to generate immune cells or ‘T-cells’ that are capable of specifically attacking the cancer cells.  These cells are generated from patient derived cells that are re-programmed in the lab to stem cells known as ‘induced pluripotent stem cell’, before being coaxed into T-cells.  The problem faced by scientists is harvesting enough of these T-cells to be used therapeutically and also getting these T-cells to recognise a chosen target – in this case a characteristic protein present on the surface of a cancer cell.

In the present study, the team have managed to engineer T-cells with high specificity towards a protein, called CD19, which is present on some blood cancers.  To do this they obtained human T-cells from a volunteer’s blood and genetically engineered them to revert to a stem cell state.  These stem cells were then once again genetically modified to express the ability to recognise CD19 before being chemically induced into T-cells.  The authors found that when mice carrying CD19 relevant cancers were injected with these T-cells, their tumours completely regressed, and the treatment provided a survival benefit for the animals.

This work takes a huge step towards personalising cancer therapy because it allows therapeutic T-cells to be developed to attack the unique characteristics of an individual’s cancer.  This technology is still in early stages of development but promise has already been show for adoptive T-cell therapy in clinical trials.  The progress made here will strengthen the possibility that one day all cancer patients will have their therapy tailor made ‘in the dish’.

 

 

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