Drug therapies that harness the immune system’s natural ability to fight cancer have been advancing at a fast pace since the first immunotherapy drug was approved in 2011. These early immunotherapy drugs—called checkpoint inhibitors—work by triggering the immune system to attack cancer cells. But a new and highly personalized type of immunotherapy drug uses a patient’s synthetically modified T cells—a type of white blood cell—to kill cancer cells. This is called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy.
Think of your T cells as police officers on a beat. They patrol the body’s bloodstream in search of foreign invaders, from harmful bacteria to cancer cells. They have specialized receptors that recognize these unwanted intruders by detecting certain proteins on their surfaces. In CAR T-cell therapy, synthetically engineered receptors designed to detect the cancer cell’s protein are attached to a sample of a patient’s T cells taken from a blood draw. Then, in a laboratory, hundreds of millions of these modified T cells are grown before the cells are re-infused back into the patient. If the therapy is successful, these cells begin recognizing and killing cancer cells.
"CAR T is an exciting new form of immunotherapy that is proving effective in patients with certain recurrent or resistant blood cancers,” says Yale Medicine hematologist Stuart Seropian, MD, who is co-director of the CAR T-Cell Therapy program at Yale New Haven Health’s Smilow Cancer Hospital, the first hospital in Connecticut to perform the therapy.
At Yale Medicine, CAR T-cell therapy offers highly personalized therapy options for patients with certain types of blood cancers such as relapsed or refractory B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “This therapy could help patients who have already tried chemotherapy, or who do not have alternative treatment options,” says Yale Medicine pediatric hematologist oncologist Niketa Shah, MD.