Scientists and specialists in oncology recently met at a symposium organized by the Ramón Areces Foundation in Madrid to discuss the latest advances in cell therapies against cancer. These therapies, including CAR-T, have been shown to be effective in patients with blood tumors, such as Emily Whitehead, Doug Olson, and Joan Gel, who are alive on these experimental therapies.
CAR-T therapy, which is based on an autotransplantation of genetically modified immune cells to attack a patient’s tumor, has been a breakthrough in the fight against cancer. However, its use has been limited due to the fact that cell extraction is required from each patient, which makes the process expensive and limits its use to a small number of patients. Also, rejection could kill the patient if cells from another donor are used.
For this reason, researchers are working on new cell therapies that can be applied to any patient without the risk of side effects. One of these therapies is NK-CAR, developed by German oncologist Evelyn Ullrich, which uses immune cells known as natural killers (NK) instead of T lymphocytes.
Hematologic cancer patients
NK cells are the first line of defense of the immune system and are capable of detecting and eliminating infected or cancer cells. Ullrich has created lines of genetically modified natural killers to detect tumor-identifying molecules (antigens) and increase their effectiveness. These cells can be transplanted allogeneically; that is, from a donor to a different recipient, without rejection problems. CAR-NK treatments are already being tested in clinical trials with patients suffering from blood cancers and could be available in about three years.
Omid Veiseh, a bioengineer at Rice University in the United States, is working on another innovative cell therapy for ovarian cancer. Instead of producing biological drugs in laboratories, his idea is to inject microscopic bioreactors into the patient’s body that directly manufacture the drug. These cytokine factories, an inflammatory molecule that alerts the rest of the immune system and directs it towards the tumor, are built with cells taken from the retina of the eye of an anonymous patient and covered in a hydrogel that allows oxygen and nutrients to enter and that release the cytokines right at the point where the tumor is, thus reducing the toxicity of the treatment. In short, these advances in cell therapies are a big step in the fight against cancer. The possibility of developing treatments that can be applied to any patient without the risk of side effects could mean a great advance in the fight against this disease.