You’ve read a lot lately about T-cell therapies looking like they might be the wave of the future in mesothelioma treatment. They definitely are, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
MIT took a long, hard look at T-cell therapy in the June 18 issue of its journal, MIT Technology Review. In the journal’s view, T-cell therapy offers plenty of reasons for hope.
However, there are still many obstacles researchers and pharmaceutical companies must overcome yet before the full benefits of T-cell therapy are realized. Although the article deals mainly with T-cell therapy from the perspective of treating leukemia, the lessons apply to mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma vs. Engineered T Cells
The article “Biotech’s Coming Cancer Cure” starts out with an introduction to T-cell therapy. It indicates that T-cell therapy is a radical new approach to treatment.
The thing that makes T-cell therapy radical is that it attempts to harness your immune system and train it to do something it normally can’t — to see cancer as an invader that must be destroyed.
This is known as immunotherapy. The journal notes that immunotherapy has enjoyed impressive gains as a field of research in just the last four years.
The basis for those gains has been the acquired ability to interfere with the mechanisms that blind the body’s T cells and prevent them from naturally recognizing cancer as a destructive foe to be purged.
The trick to accomplishing this is to modify the DNA within T cells so that they can see cancer cells for what they are.
The journal likens the work of T cells to mass murder, with billions of T cells marshaling all their strength to kill off tumor masses weighing several pounds total.
There are problems with this, however. As the journal points out, modified T cells can become too successful at killing and end up wiping out healthy cells, not just cancerous ones.
The journal says this phenomenon is called “cytokine release syndrome” and describes it as a storm of molecules generated as the cells fight the cancer.
Worse, cancer cells that survive a T cell onslaught can mutate in a way that makes them invincible against the next wave of T cell attacks. As a result, the cancer comes back with a vengeance.
T Cells Can Be Engineered to Attack Mesothelioma
The journal reports that it was back in 1989 when scientists first discovered they could engineer a T cell to attach to a specified structure sticking out from a cell.
A normal cell has many different types of structures sticking out. Cancer cells have the same protruding structures as healthy cells, but a few of those structures are different.
It’s the different ones that scientists want the T cells to look for and attach to. In that way, they can ensure that only the cancer cells will be attacked.
Unfortunately, the scientists have to be very careful to make sure they train the T cells to hunt for only the structures that are unique to cancer cells. Otherwise, the T cells end up also attacking healthy cells – and that can be fatal.
It certainly was fatal to one patient being treated with T cells for colon cancer. The T cells attacked the colon cancer as expected, but they also spotted the same target structure on healthy cells in the lungs.
The T cells attacked those as well, which caused the patient to die soon afterward of respiratory failure.
The journal mentioned that patient safety is just part of the concern. Scientists are also considering how to design T cells so that tumors can’t defeat them by responding with a release of PD-L1 molecules.
PD-L1 functions like an on-off switch against T cells. When cancer generates PD-L1, the molecules send a signal to the T cells that causes them to switch off and stop attacking.
Despite all this, the journal was upbeat about the potential for T cells become a mainstay in the fight against cancer.
The journal went so far as to predict that T cells will eventually be mass-produced in lab factories and then custom tailored for patients’ needs right at their bedside.