While there is not yet a cure for mesothelioma, researchers continue to look in multiple directions. One of these is the design of super T cells, customized to attack cancer cells.
CAR T-cell therapy is relatively new. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only approved its first use in 2017, but since then, it has already offered hope to many cancer patients. Even so, the science behind the therapy is still relatively unexplored. Researchers need to work out several issues before it’s likely to offer mesothelioma victims much help.
What is CAR T-cell therapy?
In CAR T-cell therapy, physicians remove a patient’s T cells from the body. T cells are a key part of the body’s defense against foreign invaders like viruses. They circulate through the body until they recognize an antigen they are programmed to attack. Once they recognize the antigen, or toxic invader, they attack it.
The body’s T cells are always adapting. The human body naturally programs T cells to attack antigens like the flu virus. This sort of programming also lies at the heart of some vaccinations. Vaccines can train the body’s T cells to attack specific antigens. In turn, that training allows the body to respond before the antigen can cause widespread harm.
When physicians conduct CAR T-cell therapy, they modify their patients’ T cells. They program them to attack a specific cancer. Then they reintroduce the T cells into the patient’s body. When the treatment works, it allows the patient’s body to attack a cancer much the same way it would attack a flu.
The treatment is currently limited
While CAR T-cell therapy may sound like a great approach to cancer treatment, its effectiveness is still extremely limited. Some of the reasons include:
- The FDA has only approved it for a very small number of cancers, primarily leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- The treatment has not proven as effective at attacking solid tumors as it has at attacking blood cancers
- T cells may fail to attack tumors that feature a relatively low level of the antigen they are programmed to attack
- The modified T cells sometimes appear to become “exhausted,” losing their effectiveness over time
- The treatment sometimes leads to serious side effects, such as high fevers and possible neurological damage
- Modified T cells sometimes attack healthy cells, which can increase the risk of infection
However, it is common for a new treatment to require refinement and improvement. And the benefits of CAR T-cell therapy are enticing enough that researchers keep looking. After all, there are few other treatments that effectively vaccinate the body against a recurrence of the cancer.
Three strategies for future improvements
The researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering are among those looking to advance CAR T-cell therapy. In a recent meeting with the American Association for Cancer Research, they addressed three possible ways to combat T-cell exhaustion and improve the therapy’s effectiveness:
- Gene editing the T cells could enhance their durability, allowing them to kill more cancer cells for longer
- Scientists are also looking at changes to the T cells outside of their genetic material that might improve the way the T cells create the desired proteins
- The introduction of a 1XX molecule may increase the T cells’ effectiveness and durability, and it appears to promote attacks against tumors with lower antigen levels
Again, these strategies do not translate directly to hope for mesothelioma victims. Instead, they suggest how much scientists are continuing to learn about this relatively new form of treatment.
Researchers are making progress every day
You can’t expect to find news about breakthrough cancer treatments every day, but researchers are making daily progress. Researchers around the world are constantly exploring new treatment options and running clinical trials aimed at improving life spans and quality of life.
The ultimate goal is a cure, but progress tends to look more like incremental steps. Those steps may not be as exciting, but they add up. Victims today can expect to live longer and enjoy a better quality of life than they would have just a few years back.