Doctors at the Stephenson Cancer Center will begin offering a new kind of treatment to patients starting tomorrow that they say is revolutionary.
Chimeric Antigen Receptor Therapy, or CAR T-cell therapy, has recently been approved by the Federal Drug Administration. The therapy, which is designed to equip white blood cells already present in the body to fight cancer cells, will start at Stephenson as soon as Thursday, Director of Transplant and Cellular Therapy Dr. George Selby said.
“So this really is a re-booting of the immune system to fight cancer,” Selby said. “This is how the normal immune system usually works as a sentry to protect us from a malignancy.”
CAR T has been developed through one of several clinical trials ongoing at Stephenson Cancer Center. Dr. Adam Asch, deputy director of the center, said the treatment is a breakthrough in the field of oncology.
“Harnessing the immune system to fight cancer really has been a holy grail of oncology for many years,” Asch said. “It’s the work of remarkable, basic scientists in laboratories that have illuminated mechanisms that the immune system uses to attack and fight cancer.”
CAR T is a treatment for leukemias and lymphomas, forms of cancer that impact the blood, the immune system and liver. First, patients have their blood drawn, but only to obtain white blood cells, which help the body fight infection.
Those cells are then injected with a virus that alters their genetics and changes behavior.
“Within white blood cells is a sub-type called T-cells,” Selby said. “These T-cells will be treated with a virus that injects new genetic information into them, and that genetic information will have that T-cell make a receptor toward molecules found on cancer cells. That receptor acts as an anchor to anchor the T-cell toward the cancer cell.”
Once it is anchored, the T-cell activates to kill the cancer cell. CAR T was given to patients whose cancers had not responded to more conventional treatments.
“A patient whose lymphoma has recurred after more conventional therapy, including stem-cell transplant, has had very few options to obtain a cure until CAR T-cell therapy has come along,” Selby said. “It’s an incredibly new advance in the treatment of these malignancies.”
Once the cells are active in the body, they have remained active, Asch said. This improves their effectiveness.
“Investigators have taken those observations and used gene therapy techniques to turn T-cells into serial killer cells that can kill thousands of cancer cells, over and over again,” Asch said. “These cells tend to persist in patients for years and that’s part of the reason why they are so effective.”