How You Can Harness Your Body’s Immune System to Fight Cancer

Microscopic image of T-cell

Every minute of every day, the body’s immune system is engaged in a microscopic battle – seeking out and destroying the abnormal cells, bacteria and viruses that cause infections and disease, including cancer. Each immune cell is a tiny warrior that is constantly working to keep the human body healthy. But sometimes, particularly when the enemy is cancer, the immune cells need a little help. With recent advancements in the field of immunotherapy, doctors can now offer some patients new hope in cancer treatment.

One new therapy enlists the help of the T-cells, a type of white blood cell that develops from stem cells in the bone marrow. Also known as T lymphocytes, T-cells are key players in the immune system and are distinguished from other white blood cells by a specialized receptor on their surface designed to detect cancer and other dangerous pathogens.

But cancer cells can be sneaky – sometimes they produce signals that disguise them and allow them to “hide” in the body, thwarting the immune system’s ability to find and kill them. This is when a type of immunotherapy known as CAR T-cell therapy may provide the immune system with the boost it needs to successfully treat certain cancers.

“CAR T-cell therapy has a huge potential to cure leukemias and lymphomas,” says Marcos de Lima, MD, Director, Hematologic Malignancies and Stem Cell Transplant Program, UH Seidman Cancer Center. “It’s not a widespread application yet, but the potential is huge.”

What is CAR T-Cell therapy?

CAR T-cell therapy is a procedure by which a patient’s immune cells are removed from their blood, genetically modified in the laboratory, and reintroduced into the body.

The patient is connected to a special device called an apheresis machine through an intravenous tube in their arm. The blood flows through the machine, which extracts the white blood cells and sends the rest of the blood back into the patient. The T-cells are then isolated in the laboratory and augmented with a special receptor called a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) that has been genetically engineered to recognize and target a certain protein in the patient’s cancer cells.

Millions of these CAR T-cells are grown in the laboratory and then returned to the patient by infusion. Once inside the body, the modified immune cells are better able to recognize, attack and kill the cancer cells. They become, in essence, “living drugs,” specifically programmed to destroy that patient’s unique cancer cells.

As the science progresses, Dr. de Lima said he expects there will come a day when cancer patients are prescribed generic CAR T-cells like any other drug. “We’d love to have an off-the-shelf product, and we are working towards that end result,” says Dr. De Lima. “Immunotherapy doesn’t help everybody, but researchers are always looking for new drug combinations and weaknesses in cancer cells that can be targeted so that, one day, everyone with cancer will benefit.”

A clinical trial of CAR T-cell therapy for patients with high risk lymphomas is scheduled to begin at University Hospitals on May 1, 2018 with Paolo Caimi, MD serving as the principal investigator.

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