T-Cell Therapy for Cancer: Progress Reported

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 16, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 16, 2016 -- A new treatment for cancer harnesses the body's own immune-system cells, and some of the leading scientists behind it have been explaining the progress made in bringing the technique into widespread use.

For years the traditional approach to treating cancer has involved surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

But excitement has been growing among scientists and doctors about immunotherapy -- not only as a treatment for cancers but for other diseases as well.

The technique involves using a person's own cells from their immune system to recognize and attack their tumor cells.

The body's T cells have evolved to spot and respond to health threats, and they provide a lifelong memory that prevents disease from happening again. But for some people with ongoing "chronic" diseases, these cells vanish or become inactive.

The science behind T cell therapy lies in restoring the body's protective T cell response.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has collected some of the results from small studies. For instance, all signs of cancer disappeared in 27 of the 30 adults and children treated in one study at the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, according to findings published in 2014 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Data from a trial published in The Lancet last year from the NCI's Pediatric Oncology Branch showed that 14 out of 20 patients had a complete response to treatment.


Some of the latest developments in this treatment were discussed at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose annual meeting wrapped up in Washington, D.C. on Monday.

The main focus of the session was on adoptive T cell therapy, which has been compared to giving the patient a “living drug.” In this process a person receives “killer” immune cells to target molecules linked to their disease.

Scientists still have to overcome some hurdles before the treatment can be used widely. They need to figure out ways to:

  • Identify or generate T cells that will work best for each individual case, whether from the patient or from a suitable donor.
  • Avoid or counter potential side-effects.
  • Find ways to shorten the path from laboratory to patient.

Progress has been made in all of those areas, three experts said at the meeting -- Dirk Busch of the Technical University of Munich (TUM), Chiara Bonini of the San Raffaele Scientific Institute, and Stanley Riddell of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Life-long Activity

"What we bring into the game is, first, the conviction that you have to select the right cells to generate optimal cell products for therapy, together with superior techniques to do it,” Busch says in a statement. “Over the past years, we at TUM as well as Stan Riddell and Chiara Bonini, have worked on providing cell products that will upon transfer to patients expand to large numbers and stay active for a long time, potentially life-long."

He says they also found a type of T cell that has the potential to help even when a person receives "low numbers of transferred cells -- in the extreme a single T cell."

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AAAS 2016 Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., Feb. 11-15, 2016.

Press release, Technical University of Munich.

National Cancer Institute.

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