T-Cell therapy for tumours

Holly Pearson talks us through a breakthrough in cancer research

9th March 2016

Research into the treatment of cancer is something that is often well documented in the media. You may have seen one example this month, when headlines such as ‘Cancer researchers claim ‘extraordinary results using T-cell therapy’ and ‘‘Extraordinary treatment could be cancer breakthrough’ were published. This isn’t the first time claims of a breakthrough in cancer treatment have been seen, but people do seem to be extraordinarily enthusiastic about these results in particular. Now, what exactly have they found?

There were 26 patients participating in this early study who typically only had months to live. Other forms of treatment had been unsuccessful, so they were chosen to participate in a new treatment. The treatment in question focuses on T-cell therapy. T-cells are another term for the T-lymphocyte, and are a very important part of our immune system. They are a type of white blood cell, which main purpose is to scan for cellular abnormalities and infections, and help defend our bodies against these. Since cancer is caused by uncontrolled division of abnormal cells, T-cells have the ability to naturally eradicate cancer cells, which is why they are of great interest in cancer research.  Modified T-cell cancer therapy works by first taking a sample of the patients T-cells from their blood. These cells are then taken to a lab, where antigen receptors (genetically modified sensor cells) are added to them, which can help seek out specific cancers. These modified T-cells are then allowed to multiply, before being transferred back into the patient. The new antigen receptors on the engineered T-cells are now able to target and destroy the cancer cells.

“This does seem to be a very exciting progression in immunotherapy. After all, it is rare we hear scientists themselves describe research as extraordinary”

The reason why this research seems so extraordinary, is because of how successful it has been so far. One study showed that 94% of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia saw symptoms ‘vanish completely’. For other types of blood cancers, response rates were greater than 80%, and over half of people treated went into complete remission. T-cells have been described as a ‘living drug’ because of their ability to stay in our body for our whole lives.

There are a few issues to note with this research however. The first being, that this has only been tested in certain blood cancers, so it is still unknown as to whether this type of therapy will prove successful in other types of cancer too. It may be more challenging to apply this to patients with solid tumours, as apposed to blood cancers. Secondly, T-cell therapy is often considered the last resort when it comes to treating cancer. This is because it can come with dangerous side effects due to reprogramming the immune system. One such side effect is cytokine release syndrome (sCRS) which can overload defense cells and cause symptoms of hypotension (low blood pressure), fever and neurotoxicity. 20 patients in the trail experienced some side effects, and 2 died due to sCRS.

“T-cells have been described as a ‘living drug’ ”

Overall, this does seem to be a very exciting progression in immunotherapy. After all, it is rare we hear scientists themselves describe research as extraordinary. However there is more work to be done to overcome the challenge of extending this research beyond the specific trails that have showed such amazing success. Every patient is unique, and this is certainly not going to be a ‘cure all’, but if it saves the lives of even a few, that is extraordinary in my book.

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