You can ‘hack’ your immune system to fight cancer better: Here’s how

CAR-T-cell immunotherapies have been partially successful in the past against only a small number of cancers and have not been successful for everyone. However, with precision-control, CAR-T-cell immunotherapies have now been found to fight a wider range of tumour types, as per two studies. Both the studies together speak of immense breakthrough in cancer treatment and have the potential to alter the way we look at cancer.

Updated Dec 19, 2022 | 06:45 PM IST

In a breakthrough the researchers have found that genetically-engineered immune cells can not only recognize cancer cells, but also breach their defences and effectively eliminate them.

What is CAR-T cancer therapy?

Research papers published in Science magazine highlight and build on the success of 'chimeric antigen receptor’ (CAR)-T cancer therapies. These therapies use genetically edited T cells to seek out the cancer cells and mark them for elimination. They have long-lasting remissions. However, they have so far been effective against only a small number of cancers and are not successful for everyone. One study conducted in 2019 estimated that under 13 per cent of cancer patients responded to immunotherapy .

What have the researchers now achieved?

Building on the success of the previous CAR-T therapies, researchers have further genetically-edited the T cells to contain “switches” that allow control over when and where the cells are active. These “hacked” cells produce a protein which stimulates T cells. This, in turn, counteracts immunosuppressive signals that are often released by tumours.

What is it all about?

To know more about the present research, it is imperative to know what T cells are and what has been accomplished in the past.
T cell is a type of white blood cell. They are part of the body’s immune system and develop from stem cells in the bone marrow. Besides protecting the body from infections, they have been found to be helpful in fighting cancer cells as well.
These T cells typically act like a police. They patrol the body, looking for infections in the form of foreign proteins which are displayed on the surface of cells, which could be infected with a virus. Or they could be tumour cells that are producing abnormal, cancer-associated proteins. And the T cells then finish the foreign cells off.
The chimeric antigen receptor or the CAR-T therapies involve genetically engineering T cells from a cancer patient to chimeric antigen receptors or CARs. These are engineered proteins that recognize the proteins displayed by tumour cells.This therapy has been found to be effective and has been approved to treat some types of leukaemias, lymphomas and myelomas. However, the medical research fraternity has been looking to expand their success to more types of cancers and tumours. Besides, they have been pursuing ways to make the treatments safer and more effective.
Two studies, both published in Science (you can read them here and here ), spell the massive breakthrough in cancer treatment and have the potential to alter the way we look at cancer. They look at bringing the benefits of immunotherapy to more patients throught synthetic biology . This is a new field of study that seeks to redesign nature with new and more useful functions.
Systems immunologist Grégoire Altan-Bonnet at the US National Cancer Institute was quoted by Science saying that both studies are a tour de force in T-cell engineering. They highlight the direction that researchers want to push CAR-T-cell therapy, he says, adding, “We know a lot of the parts, now it’s being able to put them together and explore. If we engineer the system well, we can really put the tumours into checkmate.”
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