- In 2010, three blood cancer patients were given CAR-T therapy–a treatment designed to change their immune cells so that they can attack their cancer cells.
- This week, scientists revealed that the two of those patients are cancer-free. They also found that the patients still had cancer-fighting T cells.
- These findings are promising, but there are still medical and practical barriers that keep people from receiving this kind of treatment.
One of the scientists behind this research spoke about the implications of the study in a press briefing this week. “We can now conclude CAR-T cells can cure patients with leukemia based on these results,” said Dr. Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania. “We need many more patients to be followed but at least in these two patients there is no more leukemia.”Read More
This type of treatment has received FDA approval for treating patients with certain blood cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Clinical trials are currently exploring the possibilities of using CAR-T therapy for other cancers. While these treatment advances are exciting, CAR-T therapy can come with the risk of significant side effects.
Dr. Nina Shah discusses the past achievements and future promise of CAR-T cell therapy.
In this study, though, researchers were impressed by the long-term impact of the therapy. Ten years after the treatment was administered, scientists found that the two patients who went into complete remission still had active CAR-T cells that could fight cancer cells. The research team is not entirely sure how the remission is maintained. It may be that all the cancer cells have been killed, but Dr. June also suggested that they could be appearing sporadically “like whack-a-moles” but then being killed by the T cells.
This is an important development, but more research is needed, and the impact of the treatment is still limited to blood cancers. In the future, cancer researchers hope to apply CAR-T therapy to cancers that produce solid tumors. At this point, however, there are still medical and practical barriers that keep many cancer patients from receiving the treatment.
Understanding CAR-T Therapy
Our immune system was designed to fight off foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and cancer. Sometimes, cancer cells can evade detection and continue to grow. But CAR-T cell therapy re-trains your immune system to make it a more efficient and effective cancer fighter.
“CAR-T is a revolution in cancer therapy; it is paradigm changing,” says Dr. Siddhartha Ganguly, previously the director of the lymphoma and myeloma program at the University of Kansas, and now the section chief of hematology at Houston Methodist Oncology Partners.
CAR T-cell therapy is an exciting treatment option, but its high price may put it out of reach for some people.
The process, as experts have explained to SurvivorNet, starts when your doctor intravenously removes a sample of your blood. With a procedure called leukapheresis — the removal of blood to collect specific blood cells — your blood flows into a machine that separates out the T cells; it then returns the other blood components, such as red blood cells, platelets, etc.
The T cells are then sent out to a lab, where technicians insert an anti-cancer gene into them. That new gene causes special receptors called chimeric antigen receptors to pop up on the surface of the T cells. Those receptors are like homing devices that will lock onto the matching antigen on the surface of your cancer cells.
Once the T cells are back from the lab, you’ll first need treatment to prepare your body to receive the new, genetically modified T cells. “Patients are primed with three to four days of a mild form of chemotherapy, so that their body does not reject those genetically modified cells,” Dr. Ganguly says. “And then those cells are infused, just like a blood transfusion.”